It's a fact that many of our nation's forefathers had slaves — including President George Washington. But a children's book about Washington's "head cook" has lots of people scratching their heads about whether the story and its illustrations are appropriate for children.
Book publisher Scholastic has pulled "A Birthday Cake for George Washington" from its distribution after lots of harsh criticism over its depiction of slaves looking happy.
At first, Scholastic Trade Publishing's vice president and executive editor Andrea Davis Pinkney wrote a blog post defending the book on the publisher's website .
"The topic of slavery is one that must be handled with the utmost care," she wrote, "especially in the form of visual depictions, historical references, dialogue and characterizations in books for young readers."
However, the sensitive nature of the story of Washington's cook, Hercules, and his daughter, Delia — who were both slaves — was exacerbated by the artist's depictions.
A servant, by definition, is someone who performs duties for others but is typically employed, whereas a slave is a person who is the legal property of another person and does not have free will — not exactly interchangeable terms, in the eyes of many people.
In Pinkney's initial defense of the book, she said the illustrator chose to portray the slaves as happy because her research indicated "Hercules and the other servants in George Washington's kitchen took great pride in their ability to cook for a man of such stature. They were not happy about being enslaved, but there was joy in what they created through their intelligence and culinary talent."
Pinkney herself is a New York Times bestselling and award-winning African-American author whose published works include many children and young adult books. She has written many books about African-American culture, which is why some can't understand her defense of "A Birthday Cake for George Washington."
But after nearly two weeks of continued criticism, Scholastic has decided to yank the book from shelves and accept returns.
"While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator and editor," the company wrote in a statement posted on its blog, "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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.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."
Random House also faced criticism over a similar book in 2015, titled "A Fine Dessert," which some deemed racist for perpetuating a sanitized, rosy depiction of slavery. The book shows a mother and her young daughter, who are slaves, making a dessert, serving it to their owner's family and then hiding in the closet to lick the bowl and eat the leftover scraps. The book's illustrations showed a smiling little girl. Both the author and illustrator of the book are white. The author of that book issued an apology and said she would donate her earnings from the book to the We Need Diverse Books campaign.
In real life, Washington's cook Hercules eventually escaped the bonds of slavery — but left his daughter behind. Not exactly storybook material, if we're aiming to also be factually accurate, but then, slavery isn't exactly a lighthearted bedtime story topic.