Following a flood of criticism, children's publisher Scholastic has decided to stop distributing a picture book about one of George Washington's slaves.
The book, "A Birthday Cake for George Washington," tells the story of a Hercules, a slave used by the president as his chef. When the country is struck by a sugar shortage, Hercules and his daughter Delia cheerfully navigate the problem and bake the president a cake without sugar.
The book, which shows Hercules and Delia smiling on nearly every page and taking pride in their position, has been roundly criticized for whitewashing the history of slavery.
Of particular concern to critics is a major biographical fact that was omitted from the book's central narrative, but included in an author's note: Namely, that Hercules eventually escaped bondage at Washington's plantation home, Mount Vernon, on February 22, 1797, President Washington's 65th birthday.
The controversy has sparked a debate about producing children's literature that offers a nuanced view of slavery and that is able to ask uncomfortable questions without stifling a conversation on one of the nation's darkest chapters.
"We need literature that wrestles with the evils of slavery while confronting its complexity," Michael Twitty wrote in an editorial for the UK's Guardian.
After the controversy broke, several members of the diverse team behind the book spoke out in defense of it.
Slavery was a complex institution, and in fact, some slaves found happiness and pride in some of their tasks, Ramin Ganeshram, the author of the book who is of Iranian-Trinidadian descent, wrote in a defense in a post for the Children's Book Council.
“Bizarrely, and yes, disturbingly, there were some enslaved people who had a better quality of life than others and ‘close’ relationships with those who enslaved them,” wrote Ms. Ganeshram, who said she researched the subject for nearly four years. “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.”
She added that Americans' discomfort with slavery blinds us to its complexities.
"In a modern sense, many of us don't like to consider this, fearing that if we deviate from the narrative of constant-cruelty we diminish the horror of slavery. But if we chose to only focus on those who fit that singular viewpoint, we run the risk of erasing those, like Chef Hercules, who were remarkable, talented, and resourceful enough to use any and every skill to their own advantage."
Andrea Davis Pinkney, vice president and executive editor of Scholastic Trade Publishing, also wrote a long essay in defense of the book.
"Hercules is often thought of by culinary historians as the first celebrity chef in America. On each day of the year – and especially on the president's birthday – Hercules ruled the kitchen. He was quite proud of his status in the Washington home, and he lived a life of near-freedom," wrote Ms. Pinkney, who is black and a winner of the Coretta Scott King Award.
But critics responded with a torrent of criticism.
“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,” Indiana State University librarian Edi Campbell wrote in a blog post, citing Henry Wiencek’s “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America.”
"Slaving, literally, over a hot 18th century stove to bake a cake for a man who has you and your child in bondage ain't happiness or pride," The Root contributing editor Demetria Lucas D'Oyley wrote. "It's duty. It's survival. It's busy work to pass the time while you're plotting your escape."
Eventually, Scholastic relented.
“While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor,” the company said in a statement, “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.”
The news highlights a vacuum in children's books that deal honestly and openly with slavery, writes Mr. Twitty for the Guardian.
"[O]ur society has poorly dealt with slavery in relation to our children," he writes. "[I]t would be great if there were a plethora of books to ease that process."