What are “happy slaves,” exactly? Apparently, George Washington had at least one of his own, as notes A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Scholastic Press publishing approved the children’s book, claiming that it has historical support.
Well, A Birthday Cake for George Washington is a book which hints a certain enslaved worker as actually being “happy” about his servitude-based position. At first, many readers might want to become furious at its concept. It’s understandable. However, if you don’t take the time to see the author’s and editor’s viewpoints first, all you’ll have are your own thoughts and pre-positions — unless you’ve done proper research for yourself.
One strict word of advice is that you should always — regardless of what anyone says — conduct personal research. Author Ramin Ganeshram states in her personal address via Children’s Book Council, “Many of us don’t like to consider this [perspective], fearing that if we deviate from the narrative of constant-cruelty we diminish the horror of slavery.”
While A Birthday Cake for George Washington has received several scathing reviews, questions, slanders, and comments, it’s irrefutable that there were different hierarchies of enslaved workers in those times, yes. And as the author and editor state, some had it better than others. This is true. George Washington’s slaves who tended to fields usually had it worse than those who worked indoors — labor-wise. However, as a side statement and contrary to the book writers’ story, George Washington also had his master chef in the fields in latter years, as mentioned by Philadelphia Inquirer.
Yet, to digress, A Birthday Cake for George Washington‘s author notes that enslaved workers of higher positions were often grateful for their statuses and used them to their advantages in order to provide better lives for their families.
— Charles Clymer (@cmclymer) January 15, 2016
As an elaboration, Ramin Ganeshram said in a statement,
“It is the historical record — not my opinion — that shows that enslaved people who received ‘status’ positions were proud of these positions — and made use of the ‘perks’ of those positions. It is what illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton calls out in her artist’s note as informing her decision to depict those in A Birthday Cake for George Washington as happy and prideful people.”
While this “happy and prideful,” George Washington-inspired book has received enormous backlash, Scholastic noted, “Because we know that no single book will be acceptable to every reader, we offer many other books and resources that address slavery and Black history.” In a sense, that was the company’s version of a disclaimer.
Nonetheless, it’s definitely affirmed and confirmed — for instance, by Bowdoin College — that many female enslaved workers who performed jobs indoors were raped by their owners easier than those who worked outside. Yet, from the aforementioned perspective, one could see the writer’s point about some slaves being “happier” than others, but not “happy,” in general. However, A Birthday Cake for George Washington allegedly doesn’t suggest that “slavery” was anything less than what history has shown.
Instead, the writers mentioned that they wanted to show a different image — not from the horrors of enslaved trenches and callousness, but from the perspective of those who attempted to make the best of the situation.
From the author’s and editor’s depictions, Hercules — basically, “America’s first celebrity chef” as they put it — is the main character in A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Apparently, George Washington had great love and respect for him. From the editor’s note on Scholastic’s blog, Andrea Davis Pinkney notes that Hercules was well-known around Philadelphia as a man of honor, respect, excellence, and stature.
Unfortunately, that’s only partly true. There’s a grim side to the Hercules/George Washington relationship as well. However, that will be covered in the next segment of the A Birthday Cake for George Washington debunking.