book review: A Birthday Cake for George Washington

Title: A Birthday Cake for George Washington
Author: Ramin Ganeshram; Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Date: Scholastic, 2016
Narrator: Delia

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 IMG_1063the 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 IMG_1064-1century 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

IMG_1056

“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.

 

Citations

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

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47 thoughts on “book review: A Birthday Cake for George Washington

  1. Thank you very much for this review. I have nothing to add in critique of the book. You nailed it. You also held the book to the same standard as A FINE DESSERT which means that you did not make any allowances because of the identities of the authorial and editorial team. i hope all other reviewers and readers will do the same. That is the only way that we will ever move forward as writers, artists, critics, educators, and students.

    I will say that I am far less interested in authorial and artistic notes that follow texts, or editors’ post-hoc explanations, than the text and pictures themselves. Every work of art needs to speak for itself.

  2. The author, publishers, and all involved must have lost their goddamn minds. Slaves. Happy. To Make a Cake. For their ENSLAVER? GTFOH. Meanwhile he’s selling their children, raping their daughters and beating their sons? All while stealing the proceeds of their hard labor? But they’re making him a birthday cake? And mad cuz there’s a sugar shortage? WHAT GRADE OF CRACK ARE YOU SMOKING?

    • Were they happy and smiling when those evil people put two horses side by side then tied the legs of an enslaved man to the tail of each horse. They would hit the horse and one horse went right one went left, thereby riping the man in half by sheer force. As all the enslaved people watched even his family. Were they smiling and happy when the overseer held a gun on the husband and made him watch as the idot plantation owner raped his wife or baby daughters. Or better yet did SALLY HEMING smile as Thomas Jefferson raped her for years beginning at AGE 11 as she delivered his child at age 12. One big happy over night party that lasted 400 happy years. We are still enduring many affects of that wonderful, happy time. A time of murder, rape being mamed, force to nurse a white babies while yours died for the lack of milk. Woman almost beat to death because the white woman was jealous that her husband kept raping the woman. News flash, that Black woman didn’t want him, the wife was too stupid to know what rape was. Jackrabbit we were never happy in slavery. I could go on and on but you get the point. However, lastly, I can testify better than most because my father was born in 1884, that puts me closer to slavery than any of my friends and I am old.

      • Jefferson began raping Hemings when she was about 14. There is no evidence Jefferson was even aware of Hemings until she accompanied his daughter to Paris in 1787.

        Hemings was born in 1772, and her first child was born in 1789 in Paris.

        One great irony is that she was free in France under the Revolutionary Government. Jefferson swore to her that if she returned with him he would free that child and any others up on their 21st birthdays, and provide them with dowry if girls or with a good apprenticeship if boys.

        It was a lie. He appears to have “allowed” two of their children to run away. The others were only freed upon his death.

        Sally was never freed.

  3. What?…a happy slave?…since when?….my child will never read this mess….why would you even write a book like this?….black slaves where not happy….not even the sambos. ….smdh..you white folks are something else….

  4. Scholastic books Should be Ashamed of themselves for allowing this book on the shelves of any Book store. No such thing as a happy Slave fools . Tell George Washington to make his own damn Birthday Cake , better yet Don’t that wife of his know how to cook! I wouldn’t Buy it , I’d burn it , and if that book ever showed up in my Grandchildren school you would find that school embroiled in protest !

  5. Are you kidding me? I’m a teacher and I would never read this book to my scholars. No one is happy to be a slave, neither does a slave master look up to thier slave. They work for free and were beaten. They were treated as animals. I hope the author mentioned the part where slaves were chased down and eaten by dogs when they did try to escape. I wonder why they would want to run away if they were happy.

    • I’m not sure I’d use the word “whitewashed” except ironically. Non-white author. African-American illustrator. African-American editor. And none of them rookies, by any means. Blackall and Jenkins can be better excused than this team. I wonder first how they went so wrong, and second,if they’re getting ready to donate their advances to We Need Diverse Books.

    • Your point? An illustrator uses his/her talents to convey the story of the author, not to steer the story in the direction of their choice.

      • While I think the author and illustrator both had roles in creating this book, we have to realize the wider range of racism that is embedded in what publishers produce.

    • Your point? The author hires (and pays) the illustrator to convey the story. The illustrator does just that, and is not empowered to change the narrative.

    • The illustrator is a black woman excuse isn’t validation for this book, or if it deserves to be in the hand of an impressionable child. The idea that a person would actually sit down and write a book about a happy slave baking a cake for massa, is disturbing and the reality that a person would illustrate to add to the story is disturbing, and then create it and marketed towards educating children, that’s insane. I can’t believe the lengths people would go to make black children feel and see themselves as less than, to create a book about happy slaves; so is the author saying, that the black community should stop complaining about slavery because it wasn’t bad at all, in fact the slaves were happy, and loved their massas so much, they would bake a cake for them, to show their love and affection, and worry if they didn’t have enough ingredients for the special cake? Is this author serious? This is Brainwashing 101, and how dare they try to do this to children at an impressionable age. I hope school districts ban this book.

  6. Disgusting is just the start of my comments. Shame shame shame on Scholastic for publishing such erroneous BS! This is why it is important to educate your own children because bafoons like this try to make light of the treacherous truths of slavery. Whites have never openly esteemed blacks as a group. During that time they stole, raped, and did horrible things like publicly cut of the genitalia of any black man that stood up to him. White people still do not look up to black people and are prosecuted for crimes at exponentially higher rates. I give less than a dam if the illustrator is black so were overseers during slave times. Overseers were the middlemen of the antebellum South’s plantation hierarchy. As such they occupied an impossible position. The masters expected them to produce profitable crops while maintaining a contented workforce of slaves—slaves who had little reason to work hard to improve the efficiency of the plantation. I am truly ashamed of Scholastic and will be sure to never support them again#boycottscholastic

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  8. Hi, my name is Jason Alston and I am the editor of BCALA News, which is the official publication of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. I would like to talk to the writer of this review about possibly including it in our publication. I would appreciate an email from the writer of this review if possible, contact me at jasonalston [at] gmail.com.

  9. Thanks, Edi, for this review. I am glad your work is receiving the attention this kind of work should get. I hope that teachers and librarians across the country are reading and learning from your words.

  10. Edi,

    Thank you for such a through review. Today Scholastic posted a response to the outrage this book is receiving on their Facebook page. It links to posts from the author and the editor.

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  12. Absolutely disgusted of the content and illustration (back cover) of this ______!
    My first thought came to my two (2) Grandchildren. There is no way that I would ever buy or read this demeaning crap for/to them!
    Nefertitidena48

  13. No one would ever think of making a childrens book about happy Jewish concentration camp prisoners cheerfully baking a birthday cake for Himmler or Hitler in Europe in ww2.
    Imaginge the public outrage if that would follow, it would never even make it to the bookstores and library shelves before getting abolished and the author, illustrator and publisher would most likely be facing anti semitic hate crime charges.

    (In fact the nazis in the worst killing camp in Poland did have a small group of Jewish prisoners (selected especially for their blondish “aryan” looks) cleaning and cooking for them in their compound. They were treated better, almost friendly, and didn´t have to starve like and live with the other prisoners, but were still lined up and shot when the nazis knew that they were about to lose the war. The nazis fled but before that they shot their “kitchen staff”.)

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  15. Geh! I was so hoping to find out this wasn’t illustrated by Brantley-Newton. As a female African-American artist myself, I’m a huge fan of her work (and will continue to be!). Her artwork embraces and celebrates diversity to the utmost and I simply can’t believe that she would agree to collaborate on such a book without the best of intentions. Seriously, look her up. She’s collaborated on an array of books touching on topics relating to race and diversity (though obviously more successfully written than this book). I think this is a case of a bad idea being seen from an unrealistically positive perspective, gaining momentum and support under that misguided perspective and coming to fruition. It really should have been shut down before it ever got to the point of publication. Anyhow… I just wanted to get that thought out there, because I know many people won’t bother to investigate the creators of this book much further than this article and I’d hate for Brantley-Newton to get an overall bad rap for one less than wise book collab.

  16. I could be so cruel with my comments. But I won’t. I will stay close to the facts…. Maybe the story was written BEFORE the little girl smiling on the cover was sold and….raped? Maybe the father was smiling before he was beaten or lynched? Hummmm

    This makes me sad that Scholastic would ever print something to silly and sell it in our school. How about sharing real contributions of Blacks? Inventions? Oh because that would actually EMPOWER us.

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