Ganeshram, Ramin & Brantley-Newton, Vanessa. A birthday cake for george washington. Scholastic, 2016. 32 pages. ISBN 978-0-545-53823-7.
Discontinued by the publisher.
A Birthday Cake for George Washington is undoubtedly the most well-known example of white privilege in children’s publishing. The story centers around Hercules, a slave and renowned chef preparing a birthday cake for his master President George Washington. In the book’s illustrations Hercules and the rest of George Washington’s slaves are seen smiling jovially as they work in the kitchen. Almost immediately after the book’s publication on January 5, 2016, Scholastic, Ramin Ganeshram, and Vanessa Brantley-Newton started receiving backlash for the book’s depiction of smiling, happy slaves.
Academic librarian Edith Campbell (2016) wrote a review of the book on her blog stating “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.”
Allyson Criner Brown (2016) asserted that “this book suggests that the perks, benefits, and joy they could receive from working closely for a person of stature outweigh the context of their enslavement. Even worse, Birthday Cake presents Hercules and his daughter as proud servants without juxtaposing their bondage to their owner or to the institution of slavery.”
Ultimately, A Birthday Cake for George Washington showcases a watered down version of slavery, easily digestible for the white masses. The biggest problem this book posed was that it could have been a child’s first introduction to slavery. If that were the case, what would the child think? Would they realize that slavery was truly horrendous? Or would they look at the images of Hercules and his daughter Delia and think “Hey, maybe it was not so bad after all. Look, the slaves are smiling!”
It is incredibly dangerous to paint pictures of slavery that can be construed as positive. Fortunately, Scholastic agreed and ended up pulling the book and discontinuing its production stating “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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn” (2016).
While it is fantastic that the book has been pulled, just the fact that it was published in the first place is a sign of the white privilege that permeates much of children’s publishing.
Campbell, E. (2016). Book review: A birthday cake for george washington. Retrieved from https://campbele.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/book-review-a-birthday-cake-for-george-washington/
Criner Brown, A. (2016). Not recommended: A birthday cake for george washington. Retrieved from http://www.teachingforchange.org/gw-birthday-cake-not-recommended
Scholastic. (2016). New statement about the picture book ‘a birthday cake for george washington’. Retrieved from http://oomscholasticblog.com/post/new-statement-about-picture-book-birthday-cake-george-washington?linkId=20436402