February 22, 2016

The Complicated History Behind “A Birthday Cake For George Washington”

By Tayla Burney

On this day, 284 years ago, George Washington was born. At that time, his parents couldn’t wish for their child to grow up to be President of the United States because that wasn’t a thing yet. But since, many have and there’s little doubt that many of them look to the originator of the role as an exemplar of the proper way to wield power.

And yet, Washington’s legacy is complicated by one topic in particular: slavery. Earlier this year a children’s book about Washington’s birthday, “A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” was pulled from shelves by Scholastic after an outcry from critics, activists and readers over the portrayal of his slave and chef Hercules, as a smiling, happy member of the household at Mount Vernon.

It wasn’t the first time in recent memory that a children’s book depicting slavery drew fire. And the controversy certainly raises all kinds of questions about how and why we white wash our history. It also sparked debate over the best way to introduce children to complex parts of American history and depictions of African Americans in media more broadly.

We asked one of our frequent guests Edie Ching, a former librarian, children’s book expert and UMD professor, about the complex reaction it provoked.

Here’s what she had to say:

  • I was able to take a look at the long notes the author put at the end of the book and that was a sure sign that the subject needed more than a cozy picture book coverage of baking a cake. Hercules was a rich subject for a non-fiction picture book –not only because of his talents and achievements as a chef but because he escaped, which was clearly a sign that his life wasn’t that great. From what I have read, Washington put Hercules to hard labor after Hercules’ son stole some money from a visitor and Washington assumed Hercules was part of the plot. Furthermore, Delia, the narrator of this picture book, remained enslaved all of her life.
  • Pulling the book has helped those of us who work with kids and books to think more carefully about what we are sharing and what underlying themes we might be missing. The presentation of this book, father and daughter, in the kitchen, baking a cake, smiling, simplify the truth of their life. Young children do not need that kind of deception, even if it was unintentional.

Ramin Ganeshram, the author of the book, has shared her side of this controversy and stressed that the story of Hercules is an important one to tell. So we reached out to Chelsea Lenhart, the scholar who wrote about Hercules for Mount Vernon’s digital encyclopedia. Here’s what she had to say about the man who baked for George Washington:

You’ve studied international affairs and now are pursuing a master’s in public administration. How did you end up writing about Hercules for Mount Vernon’s digital encyclopedia?

  • As an undergrad student at George Washington University, I was a history minor and one course was called “George Washington and his World.” You had to apply for the course and explain why you wanted to learn about his legacy. I made it into the course and we went to the Mount Vernon estate almost every Monday to learn about him and the effect he still has today.
  • One day while on Mount Vernon estate, we were walking around the slave quarters and I noticed a portrait of a black man there in chef’s clothes. It’s odd to see portraiture of people from that period of people who aren’t white, so it piqued my curiosity. I started doing research and learned about Hercules, his time at Mount Vernon and his eventual decision to run away.

Is it true that Hercules ran away from Mount Vernon on Washington’s birthday? 

  • It’s something that a lot of historians think is true. We couldn’t say 100 percent it was that day, but the timeline lands right around there regardless. Washington kept a really complex diary and on that particular birthday he wrote in the morning, but not the evening. But when he picked up again a few days later he made it clear that Hercules was gone and many suspect that may have been the day he fled.

Telling Hercules’ story is important, to the extent that we can piece it together. How can we use it to better understand President Washington?

  • There’s a lot to learn. My final history assignment for that class was a paper titled “George Washington the Oppressor?” His relationship to his slaves is complicated and that shows through in his effort to free them in his will. Washington talks about Hercules in his diary in similar language that he uses to talk about his friends.
  • And yet, you can say he was treated well and respected, but Hercules still chose to run away because at the end of the day because he was a slave. It wasn’t an institution he wanted to be part of. And so we often overlook that in considering history. There’s a lot of evidence he could’ve done sooner.

Telling the stories of slaves can be challenging for a variety of reasons. When you were researching Hercules’ story, what were the biggest challenges you came across?

  • To be honest, I was hoping to find more because there obviously is probably a really fascinating story there. But with so few first person accounts of these relationships it’s hard to paint a full picture. You have a few writings from one of Martha Washington’s sons talking about Hercules and how he kind of ran the kitchen and house in a lot of ways. It also tells us a lot that he was able to go into town to do the marketing and was known in the community as a member of the estate. That’s all interesting and revealing, but Hercules himself didn’t keep any writings we know of.
  • The portrait is a mystery as well. Historians are fairly certain it is actually him. There aren’t many stories of other chefs who were as well regarded and trusted in that era. So we’re pretty certain it’s him, but can’t be sure.

Based on your research into Hercules’ life and his relationship with George Washington, what did you make of “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” and how it depicted Hercules and his status as a slave?

  • When first I heard about it, I was kind of astonished and taken aback. It’s a complicated story to tell and it’s hard sometimes to give this narrative to children. Children’s books usually are happy and have a kind of silver lining aspect to stories even if they’re hard. So it seemed odd to have smiling people in this book about slavery. And the wording about “servants,” kind of covers up the reality.
  • It’s tough, I don’t know if pulling it was the right answer. I’m glad I don’t have to make those decisions.

How can we tell stories like this when we teach our kids about the Founding Fathers?

  • I always get in arguments about this here on campus. We have to look at our leaders in the context of the time they lived in and judge them for the actions they didn’t take within that context. They’re supposed to be the change makers, supposed to be one step above or ahead. We look to them to lead the way.

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