Title: A Birthday Cake for George Washington
Author: Ramin Ganeshram; Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Date: Scholastic, 2016
George Washington and the people he enslaved may receive more attention than any other facet of slavery in the United States. Whether due to the documents that were well maintained by his estate or because some people let the fact that this Founding Father owned enslaved humans give them some sort of validation, we find numerous books and documentaries relating to George Washington and the people he owned.
A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram and Vanessa Brantly-Newton is the story of Hercules, the first White House chef, while he is in the midst of preparing a birthday cake for George Washington’s birthday. Things go awry when he realizes there is no sugar in the cupboard. “Not brown, not cake nor fine.” The story meanders to build a background for this chef, who eventually realizes that he can indeed bake the cake without sugar. The story is narrated by his daughter, Delia, who is often accompanied by a young boy who appears quite comical throughout the text and we later find out he is the Kitchen Boy. The children’s roles in the kitchen aren’t quite clear; they seem happy being there.
We’re eight pages into the story when we realize that Hercules is a “slave”. I have to use quotes here because this is the word Ganeshram chooses to use and I think it works against her. Up to this point (and even beyond) the book’s illustrator, Brantley-Newton surrounds Hercules with people physically looking up to him and with much admiration. After stating that Hercules is a “slave”, Ganeshram goes on to describe the clothes he wears, what type of entertainment he chooses and the time he spends walking in the streets, often alongside free Blacks. But, we never find out what it means that he’s a “slave”. Ganeshram elevates Hercules to such a prominent level, but never explains that he is outstanding for doing these things because he’s a “slave”. She builds him up, showing us a fully developed human being who is enslaved, but never develops that condition. His life was not just like a free white person of that era, but readers have no reason to understand that. Ample documentation exists to support how demanding Washington was of the Whites, indentured servants and enslaved Blacks who worked for him and of his unyielding demands to get his money’s worth from the slaves he owned (Hirschfeld, 1997, Wiencek, 2003) . Both he and his wife came from the aristocratic class and were used to manage slaves (Bryan, 2002). Knowing this makes it difficult to accept that Hercules managed his kitchen (including white chefs who worked for him) but he did. There would really be a story to tell if the terms of this enslavement were more fully developed.
Brantley-Newton in her Artist’s Note states “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. There is joy in what they have created through their intelligence and culinary talent.” 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. Washington expected all his people to work from sunrise to sunset. The closer they worked in proximity to him the more they would be scrutinized. 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. If that’s not enough to make you question smiling enslaved people, do wonder why Hercules would run away on Washington’s birthday just one year later. 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.
The Children’s Book Council calls the book “the true story of an enslaved girl’s father who baked an unforgettable birthday cake for America’s first president.” This is not a true story, rather it is loosely based upon facts. I don’t think Ganashram herself refers to this as a true story, in fact she delivers much of the truth in her Author’s Notes. Here, in a tone inviting young readers to finish the story, she states that Hercules’ daughter never worked in the kitchen and it is here she states that Hercules ran away a year later. She doesn’t mention that Hercules was allowed to earn an income by selling kitchen scraps and that he actually never baked cakes. These particular facts don’t diminish the story Ganashram has created but they do more fully inform us about the real man.
The last image in the book, the paternalistic arm of our Founding Father around one of his
“slaves” simply adds to the myth of George Washington. I critically asked myself for whom this book is written and I think it’s written for a multitude of young readers to show them the greatness of this black man. However, this greatness is delusional because the most important part of his story is missing. Hiding these facts does indeed diminish the story. The book concludes with notes from the author and artist and a recipe from Martha Washington but, no sources are cited.
Bryan, Helen (2002). Martha Washington: First lady of liberty. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=aM9jR3aJZKUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Martha+Washington:+First+lady+of+library&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwivzaeLpafKAhUBqR4KHTpKA-0Q6AEIHTAA#v=onepage&q=Martha%20Washington%3A%20First%20lady%20of%20library&f=false
Hirschfeld, Fritz (1997). ( George Washington and slavery: A documentary portrayal. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=4YX3czE0SGYC&oi=fnd&pg=PR11&dq=George+Washington+and+Slavery:+A+documentary+portrayal&ots=BOxXNUasR3&sig=P-DYNR2MG7FRX3YpwddAoF3SNdE#v=onepage&q=George%20Washington%20and%20Slavery%3A%20A%20documentary%20portrayal&f=false
Wiencek, Henry (2003). An imperfect God: George Washington, his slaves, and the creation of American. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=HTJHAQAAQBAJ&dq=george+washington%27s+slaves&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s