Scholastic Wrong to Pull Plug on Controversial Picture Book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington

When I heard about Scholastic’s decision to halt distribution of A Birthday Cake for George WashingtonI immediately ordered two copies.

By pulling the plug on this book, Scholastic is underestimating the cognitive and emotional intelligence of children. Why is it so hard to comprehend that while slavery was a horrible institution, slaves were human beings, and human beings will seek out joy wherever they can find it – no doubt a failing of the human spirit.

Human beings also need to love their children. Perhaps even their work. Even when there is little hope of freedom.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington is about the President’s cook, a slave named Hercules, and his daughter Delia, who tells the story.

A Birthday Cake for George WashingtonTogether the pair take on a daunting challenge: They must make the President’s birthday cake, but have run out of sugar.

Sugar. Of all things. The irony should not be lost anyone.

Announced today in the news, the decision to pull the book off the market seems like pandering. Instead of allowing one individual’s story to be told, the publisher insists we see slaves as one tortured group. A patchwork blanket of blacks and browns.

Would it be so terrible for kids to read a story about an individual slave who loved his daughter? Whose lot in life was not desirable by any means, but who whose skills brought him satisfaction and pride? Respect, even?

Scholastic has made the decision for us.

Maybe they haven’t heard that young children only wish to know about real people. Not labels.

The book was written by Ramin Ganeshram, a culinary historian and Washington scholar. She depicts Hercules in a way that appeals to children’s sensibilities: as a father who is proud of his position and skilled in his work, yet still a slave.

“On several occasions, the book comments on slavery, acknowledges it, and offers children and adults who will be sharing the book ‘a way in’  as they speak to these issues,” Andrea Davis Pinkney writes in a Jan. 6, 2016 guest post titled, A Proud Slice of History. Pinkney is vice president and executive editor of Scholastic Trade Publishing.

“Through carefully curated research, A Birthday Cake for George Washington presents an important slice of American history. It is based on the true story of Hercules, the president’s cook. Hercules was one of over 300 African Americans enslaved by George and Martha Washington. Even though he was a slave, everyone knew and admired Hercules ― especially the president!”

In an Alternet article posted Oct. 2, 2015, Steven Rosenfeld quotes Hillary Clinton’s remarks to a group of Black Lives Matters protesters. The senator from New York said slavery was the “original sin… that America has not recovered from.”

I would have to agree.

In the same article, Rosenfeld reviews The American Slave Coast: A History of The Slave Breeding Industry, by Ned And Constance Sublette. According to the Sublettes, not only did slaves fuel the South’s economy, they were a form of currency in and of themselves – bought, sold and bred to increase the wealth of their owners. Women were kept continually pregnant.

Despite the atrocities, I still can’t agree with Scholastic’s decision. It could start a dangerous trend. And if it does, we will be losing important faces in history: Individual faces.

As a writer, I like a backstory. Characters and events that hang out on the periphery, not the main stage. By telling a person’s story from wherever they happen to be standing, we make them matter.

I don’t argue that slavery was an abomination. A scar on our collective conscience. Regardless of how skilled and respected an individual slave may have been, they weren’t paid for their labors and definitely weren’t free to leave.

Like Hercules, some of these talented individuals became notables in their right. Elizabeth Keckley, for example. A former slave, Keckley was Mary Todd Lincoln’s modiste – her dressmaker.

In stopping the distribution of Birthday Cake for George Washington, Scholastic is in effect banning it. The book’s benefits, however, outweigh the company’s fears. Let children, teachers, and parents be the judge. Let them read it, talk about it, and come to their own conclusions.

Because banning books is just a lazy way of dealing with ignorance and guilt.  FFG

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