Presidents’ Day: The Forgotten Legacy of Slavery

George Washington's Cook (traditionally identified as Hercules) *oil on canvas *76 x 63.5 cm *ca. 1795-1797

A Bit of History:

Scholastic first began in 1920 as a simple magazine titled The Western Pennsylvania Scholastic and was created by Maurice “Robbie” Robinson who hailed from the town of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. Mr. Robinson started the magazine after graduating from Dartmouth College where he had served as editor the schools newspaper.Over the years the small four page magazine morphed into Scholastic as it is known today – a publishing powerhouse that is immensely popular among teachers, librarians, and parents alike.

The self-prescribed pledge of Scholastic is “to uphold the basic freedoms of all individuals; we are unalterably opposed to any system of government or society that denies these freedoms. We oppose discrimination of any kind on the basis of race, creed, color, sex, age, or national origin.” Along with this pledge, Scholastic says they believe in “constitutional, representative government, and even-handed justice that maintains equality of rights for all people.” And for many years, the company has had great success in carrying out and promoting these values, but lately the popular company has missed a step.

Scholastic Today:

BdayCakeforGeorge_cover

Hercules & Delia making the cake

Scholastic recently published a book aimed at children in grades 1-3 titled A Birthday Cake for George Washington written by New York Times food columnist Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. The story depicts the trials and tribulations of Hercules, an enslaved chef, and his daughter Delia. Hercules must make a cake to celebrate Washington’s birthday, but when he realizes that there is no sugar left in the pantry, he must enlist the help of his fellow slaves to find a replacement.

At the end of the book, after Hercules and the other slaves are successful in finding a replacement for the sugar, Washington congratulates him, to which Hercules replies that it was “an honor and a privilege, sir.” In addition to this rosy portrayal, at the back of the book in an addendum Ganeshram reveals that Hercules later was able to escape slavery, but that his daughter Delia remained a slave for life. Accompanying the text are rosy and cheerful depictions of slavery that reinforce an all too rosy depiction of life as a slave.

washington-cake-1

Mrs. Washington in the kitchen with Hercules

All companies make mistakes, but rather than owning up to their misstep, Scholastic initially failed to apologize. Instead they chose to defend the book – claiming that because the happiness depicted in the books illustrations was not directed at slavery, but at Hercules’ culinary expertise, it was not in the wrong. Though, shortly thereafter Scholastic did release a statement that explained that they were recalling the book, and accepting all returns. In this statement Scholastic noted that the book lacked enough historical background to be appropriate for publishing.

While the publishing of such a book is troubling, what is more troubling is that prior to the public outcry and subsequent backlash that resulted in the eventual recalling of the book –consumers were buying and sharing the book with their children. This occurrence is an unsettling sign of the state of our understanding of slavery and American history at large as a society. And, although the book has since been taken off the shelves, it leaves the proverbial door open for questions about the state of our education system, and how a book like A Birthday Cake for Washington would have been able to slip through the cracks in the first place.

Currently the book can still be purchased from Amazon.com for roughly $51.00, through third parties, and does allow viewers to ‘look inside’ the book, while also offering a wide variety of reviews (which are quite telling by themselves) for those looking for more context.


Original source material:

Book About George Washington’s ‘Happy’ Slaves Shelved

Further reading:

Hercules himself – general information about Hercules

Images

  1. Forbes
  2. Wonkette
  3. Hercules (chef) wikipedia

 

 

Advertisements

2 Comments

  1. Interesting post! I wasn’t aware of this “mistake” by Scholastic. It sounds like this rosy portrayal of slavery aligns with other recent efforts to teach US American students that the Atlantic slave trade was part of a wave of “migration” to North America in the 17th-20th centuries.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s