Scholastic’s new children’s book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, tells the story of Hercules, a slave and head chef in George Washington’s White House, as he tries to bake a birthday cake for his master.
The book follows Hercules and his daughter Delia as they search for sugar for the cake recipe and depicts their relationship with Washington as something like a mutually respectful friendship.
“Only when Mrs. Washington comes into the kitchen does Papa turn his scowl into an easy smile,” Delia describes in the book. “‘Not to worry Lady Washington,’ he says in his voice that is sweet and smooth like molasses. ‘Leave it all to me.'”
Martha Washington, relieved by Hercules’ words, then leaves the slaves to go on a fun-filled adventure where they journey into town in hopes of finding the crucial ingredient. Once they obtain the sugar, they rush back to their master’s house and prepare him a fabulous cake which he enjoys while they beam at him in adoration.
The book ends with an Hercules and Delia wishing Washington an emphatic “happy birthday.”
The book’s author, Ramin Ganeshram, is a former journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, and Forbes. She describes A Birthday Cake for George Washington as a way for children to learn about the “bittersweet reality” of being kitchen slaves. Understandably, many people took issue with what they saw as an ahistorical depiction of slave life that downplayed the cruelty and horror that comes with being owned by another human being.
“We’re talking about people in the 18th century who had no corner grocery store, no electricity and no running water. We’re talking about people who were the servants who had to grind the wheat, make the candles and stoke the fires,” librarian Edi Campbell explained in a blog post detailing just how strict a master Washington was. “The enslaved people knew that not being free meant they could be denied privileges, sent back to Mt. Vernon or sold if they were displeasing to their master.” He goes on:
Fully developed humans no doubt have the capacity to grin, smile, giggle and laugh but when this image of happy enslaved people is repeatedly portrayed in children’s literature it substantiates slavery as acceptable for black people by indicating their acceptance of this situation and it thus continues to dehumanize.
Just how giggle-worthy A Birthday Cake for George Washington might be to adults is debatable, but what’s rather clear is just how much of Washington’s abuse of his slaves Ganeshram glosses over.
The real Hercules was, in fact, an actual slave (and head chef) who ran away to freedom from the White House on February 22, 1797, the day of Washington’s 65th birthday.
A Birthday Cake for George Washington manages to use the names of actual people owned by George Washington, but it fails to describe how the president schemed to keep Hercules, Delia, and her siblings enslaved.
In 1790, Hercules was one of 10 slaves that George Washington moved from his plantation in Mount Vernon, Virginia, to the White House which was then located in Philadelphia.
Ten years before Washington brought Hercules to Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the Gradual Abolition Act, a law that allowed all slaves owned by Pennsylvania residents the ability to free themselves after six months of living in the state. Members of Congress were exempt, but the law made no mention of members of the Executive or Judicial branches of government, which wouldn’t be created until 1788.
When George Washington became a Pennsylvania resident, he was confronted by a legal imperative to free his slaves. Technically speaking, he had to free them all after six months of labor in Philadelphia, but of course, he wasn’t keen on letting them go.
After making a weak argument that he wasn’t a real Philly resident because his job necessitated his living there, Washington gave up on trying to wriggle out of his legal obligation and broke the law to keep Hercules and Delia enslaved.
Under the council of attorney general Edmund Randolph, Washington would periodically ship slaves back to his plantation in Virginia in order to technically “renew” their Pennsylvania residencies.
Just as a slave’s chance as emancipating themselves would come up, Washington thwarted them, dooming them to indefinite years of second class citizenship. Even though this was against the law, no one, not even the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, did anything about it.
“That the Society in this city for the abolition of slavery, had determined to give no advice and take no measures for liberating those Slaves which belonged to the Officers of the general Government or members of Congress,” Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear wrote to him in a letter. “But notwithstanding this, there were not wanting persons who would not only give them (the Slaves) advice, but would use all means to entice them from their masters.”
George Washington was not Hercules’s friend; he was his owner. He kept him from his children on a regular basis to ensure that his ownership would continue.
Though many point to Washington’s decision to free his slaves in his will as a sign that he was a kind, benevolent master, there’s substantial documentation that he was known for endorsing brutal corporal punishment for those slaves he judged to be lacking.
“[George Washington] justified the occasional severity,” Washington historian Peter R. Henriques explains in his essay, “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret.” “In his words, “if the Negros will not do their duty by fair means, they must be compelled to do it.”
In a public statement addressing the backlash her book’s receiving, Ganeshram defended her decision to depict Hercules and Delia as objectively happy by citing the fact that the real Hercules was, in fact, well-respected for his cooking skills.
“It is the historical record—not my opinion—that shows that enslaved people who received “status” positions were proud of these positions—and made use of the “perks” of those positions,” Ganeshram said. “In a modern sense, many of us don’t like to consider this, fearing that if we deviate from the narrative of constant-cruelty we diminish the horror of slavery.”
“But if we chose to only focus on those who fit that singular viewpoint, we run the risk of erasing those, like Chef Hercules, who were remarkable, talented, and resourceful enough to use any and every skill to their own advantage.”
Though Ganeshram point about the importance of remembering the complexities of slavery is well taken, A Birthday Cake for George Washington doesn’t do much to convey them to its readers.
Without a significant amount of supplemental explanation from parents or teachers, it’s easy to see how the book’s characters could be seen as happy and with their enslavement. Hercules might have been a respected chef, but he was never content with living his life as George Washington’s property.
When Hercules escaped from the White House on the night of Washington’s birthday, Delia was not with him. She was back at Mount Vernon, awaiting her return to Philadelphia when she would be reunited with her father. When she learned of Hercules’s escape, she was both saddened and comforted to know that he finally had his freedom.
That particular moment in their lives isn’t included in A Birthday Cake for George Washington—in its place, you can find a recipe for “Martha Washington’s Great Cake.”