A sudden flurry of outraged tweets and blog posts last week led me to A Birthday Cake for George Washington, written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, which the publisher touted as “based on real events.” Set in 1790s Philadelphia, where George Washington was serving as America’s first president, the story is about Hercules, Washington’s slave-cook, and is narrated by his young daughter Delia.
Last night, less than two weeks after releasing the book (and only hours after I read it), Scholastic withdrew it and released this statement:
Scholastic is announcing today that we are stopping the distribution of the book entitled A Birthday Cake for George Washington… While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor, we believe that, without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn… We do not believe this title meets the standards of appropriate presentation of information to younger children, despite the positive intentions and beliefs of the author, editor, and illustrator.
Our long tradition of mythologizing the Founding Fathers, and lying to our children about the past, are evident in this misguided book.
The very simple story boils down to this: Hercules has to bake a birthday cake for President Washington but has no sugar. A quarter of the way into this 32-page picture book, Delia tells the reader:
Me and Papa and all our family are among the slaves who belong to President Washington. Next to the president’s personal servant, Billy Lee, Papa is the slave President and Mrs. Washington trust the most. In the streets of Philadelphia, slaves are not seen. But everyone knows Papa. President and Mrs. Washington give Papa fine things because his food is so delicious.
Hercules averts disaster by substituting honey for sugar and bakes the cake. The story ends with Washington thanking Hercules:
“Hercules,” the president says in his soft voice that is like a whisper… “You are a magician, a master chef. You have outdone yourself again. Good man!”
“An honor and a privilege, sir,” Papa says. “Happy birthday, Mr. President.”
The final illustration shows Washington with his arm around Hercules’s shoulders. The tone of the text and illustrations are relentlessly cheerful, depicting smiling slaves throughout.
This makes the notes from the author and artist, in small print at the end of the book, all the more jarring. Brantley-Newton writes: “While slavery in America was a vast injustice, my research indicates that Hercules and the other servants in George Washington’s kitchen took great pride in their ability to cook for a man of such stature. That is why I have depicted them as happy people.”
Ganeshram, a food writer, equates Hercules to “the first celebrity chef in America” who “lived a life of near-freedom.” She does present a few short paragraphs of information about Washington and his slaves — the only actual facts in the book, as the story she’s just told is completely fictional. But she buries the lede, not mentioning until the very end that on Washington’s 65th birthday, Hercules didn’t bake a cake — he escaped. Oh, and he left Delia behind, and she remained a slave. But look — here’s Martha Washington’s cake recipe on the next page!
Until I read the author’s note, I assumed that Ganeshram couldn’t have known Hercules’ real history. But she did, which makes the choice to tell this story in this way incomprehensible, dishonest, and offensive. This can’t be overlooked or excused, despite the good intentions of the creative team.
Washington did, in fact, greatly value Hercules, who the family called Uncle Harkless. He valued Hercules so much that he was one of nine slaves Washington brought with him to Philadelphia in 1790 to work in the presidential household. But Pennsylvania law allowed slaves residing in the state for six months to obtain their freedom, so for eight years Washington repeatedly circumvented the law by ordering that Hercules and the other slaves be regularly sent back to Mount Vernon to reset the clock and prevent them from being freed. (Ganeshram does acknowledge this fact in her note.)
Washington reveals his true feelings about Hercules in this 1791 letter to his secretary, Tobias Lear, in which he explains his secret plans for tricking Hercules into returning to Mount Vernon:
…the idea of freedom might be too great a temptation for them to resist. At any rate it might, if they conceived they had a right to it, make them insolent in a State of Slavery. As all except Hercules and Paris are dower negroes, it behoves me to prevent the emancipation of them… If upon taking good advise it is found expedient to send them back to Virginia, I wish to have it accomplished under pretext that may deceive both them and the Public;—and none I think would so effectually do this, as Mrs. Washington coming to Virginia next month… if she can accomplish it by any convenient and agreeable means, with the assistance of the Stage Horses &c. This would naturally bring her maid and Austin—and Hercules under the idea of coming home to Cook whilst we remained there, might be sent on in the Stage… I request that these Sentiments and this advise may be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington.
Washington shipped Hercules back to Mount Vernon for the last time in early 1797, shortly before he was to leave office, as he was worried that Hercules might escape. (Oney Judge, Martha’s maid, had escaped from Philadelphia the year before.) Hercules was forced to labor outdoors instead of in the kitchen because his valued cooking skills weren’t needed while Washington was away.
Hercules ran away from Mount Vernon on February 22, 1797, and may have gone to Philadelphia. “Washington was angered and confused by the decision to run away, believing that Hercules lived a privileged life,” notes Mount Vernon’s Digital Encyclopedia of Washington. He ordered extensive searches for Hercules so that he could be “discovered & apprehended.” He repeatedly complained in letters about Hercules’ escape and the difficulties in finding a cook to replace him: “The running off of my Cook, has been a most inconvenient thing to this family; and what renders it more disagreeable, is, that I had resolved never to become the master of another Slave by purchase; but this resolution I fear I must break.” He continued hunting for Hercules long after he retired to Mount Vernon.
Hercules was never found, and the historical record is silent about his fate. His wife Alice was one of Martha Washington’s slaves, and together they had three children — it was their son Richmond, not Delia, who worked in the president’s house in Philadelphia, as a scullion and chimney-sweep. To gain his freedom, Hercules was forced to leave his family behind, and they all remained enslaved even after the deaths of George and Martha Washington. When his daughter was asked by the servant of a visiting French nobleman whether she was upset about never seeing her father again, she replied: “Oh! sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.”
That’s the story that should be told about Hercules and his daughter — the truth. A Birthday Cake for George Washington is a lie, and a damaging one, considering how little most Americans know about their own history. Slavery has been called America’s original sin, but we can never move beyond this legacy until we start telling the complicated truths about America’s founders and founding. Let’s retire the myths about George Washington (no, Virginia, there was no cherry tree). Let’s tell true stories about Hercules, and Oney Judge, and the others who have been missing from our books.
Lisa Gold is a freelance researcher, fact-checker, writer, and rare book expert. She lives in Seattle with her husband, novelist Matt Ruff.
Follow Lisa Gold on Twitter: @bylisagold