Ramin Ganeshram — a food writer and chef specializing in Trinidad and Tobago cuisine — recently penned the children’s book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, which, with its super-ebullient images depicting the life of George Washington’s enslaved chef Hercules, pretty immediately stirred outrage. Scholastic decided to withdraw the book from publication in January, 12 days after its release. Today, The Guardian published a post by Ganeshram, in which she states her intentions with the book, as well as her fears of what gets lost in its being withdrawn.
The story of this publication isn’t quite as simple as whitewashing or oversimplification by a white author trying to erase — or even more weirdly — glorify a hideous aspect of American history; its author is, herself, a woman of color interested not only in the tragedies of slavery, but also how some people of color — like Hercules — managed to “triumph over their terrible circumstances to their advantage through their dignity and intellect.”
It’s notable that — as is the case with many children’s books — the illustrations (which were the main target of critical ire) were not done by the author. It is perhaps the discordant process between the writing and illustrating of a children’s book that led the book to almost look like the characters were thrilled about slavery, instead of, as seems to be the original intent, emotionally resolved about experiencing joy despite it. In her piece in The Guardian, Ganeshram says:
I had my own problems with the book’s illustrations and marketing copy. It is a strange truth about children’s publishing that authors and illustrators rarely interact. While I objected to the “over-joviality” of the enslaved characters as well as to the marketing copy when I finally saw it weeks prior to publication, I had no contractual right to change any of it.
She says that her publisher wasn’t obligated to listen to her qualms with the illustrations — and thus didn’t. But it wasn’t just the illustrations that upset people. The book was also criticized for its general lack of discussion of the evils of slavery, and when it was withdrawn by Scholastic, they’d said, “We believe that, without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.”
In The Guardian, Ganeshram discusses being happy that at least what’s come from all of this is people being aware of — and trying to understand — Hercules’ story. She also questions some of the assumptions that have been made about it online. She writes that through her years of research, she was amazed by Hercules’ cunning and charm, and how he used these to navigate within a heinously oppressive system and ultimately be freed through the Gradual Abolition Act of 1787. She says:
Hercules represents just one of the many overlooked, yet remarkable people of color who personally triumphed over their terrible circumstances to their advantage through their dignity and intellect. Hercules’s story is complex, but that is exactly why to my mind it deserves to be told in books for children and adults. Banning A Birthday Cake for George Washington felt, to me, like an erasure. But we cannot stop trying to reveal these histories. It goes without saying that these and other enslaved people were not happy to be enslaved. It goes without saying that their lives were harder and crueler than we could possibly imagine with our modern, free outlook. It goes without saying that an irrevocable injustice was done them. But it is also true that they were triumphant, brilliant, complicated and extraordinary.
Read the full piece in The Guardian.