Inconvenient History Part 1: No Cake For George Washington

#BlackHistoryMonth Inconvenient History Pt 1: No Cake For George

Last month Scholastic released a new picture book on Amazon called,  “A Birthday Cake For George”. No, not George Stephanopoulos, our first President, George Washington. The book was just in time for Black History Month and Presidents Day. Perfect! Who doesn’t love a new book? Certainly not me. However, it quickly became apparent that this book wasn’t the gift is was supposed to be. The short version, the story depicted the slaves of George Washington, particularly the President’s chef Hercules and his daughter Delia, whose voice the story is told in, as HAPPY slaves. An oxymoron if ever there was one. Yet Scholastic, the esteemed author, the editor, and the illustrator didn’t see it that way. Scholastic even went so far as to have Andrea Davis Pinkney, VP and Executive Editor, Scholastic Trade Publishing write a blogpost entitled “A Proud Slice of History”. She defended the book, heralding it’s authenticity by claiming the slave Hercules had a good life, enjoying near-freedom privileges that other slaves didn’t. She claimed that the illustrator chose to dramatize the slaves with smiles to represent their personal pride in their ability to cook for a man of such high stature. But you see Hercules wasn’t given an opportunity to cook for the President he had no choice. The book is filled with smiling prisoners, because that is what slaves were. They were captives who enjoyed no rights. Even less rights, thanks to the very man at the center of the story, President George Washington. Yet the “happy slave” motif isn’t the only problem. The story itself took creative license, paying homage to “political spin”, and crafting a more convenient historical narrative.

Hercules did indeed cook for President George Washington. It is well documented. Hercules did in fact run a tight kitchen. He did have a daughter named Delia, but there’s more to the story. Hercules only worked as a Chef for the President when he was with the President. In 1790 the capital was moved to Pennsylvania so George Washington took up residence in Philadelphia. Hercules would cook for the President when he was in Philadelphia. He was granted the special permission to have a child with him in Philadelphia, but it was his son Richmond who joined him in Pennsylvania. His other two children and his wife remained at Mount Vernon in Virginia. There was truly a significant event concerning Hercules on George Washington’s 65th birthday, but no one was eating cake because of it. Hercules escaped his captivity on Washington’s birthday. His escape though, was actually from Mount Vernon, not from Philadelphia as the historical record led us to believe for centuries. Hercules had been sent to Virginia not to visit with his family, as was often the public story for slave rotations, but because President George Washington was dodging the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act of Pennsylvania which guaranteed freedom to any slave in residence for more than 6 months. Despite the 1788 amendment to the act that shored up loopholes, making the practice of rotating slaves between states as a way of skirting the law illegal. In 1797 President George Washington was rotating his slaves anyway, and no one sought fit to stop him. When Hercules was rotated back to Mount Vernon he didn’t enjoy those perks that the Scholastic book heralded, because at Mount Vernon he didn’t work as a chef. When Hercules the slave was in residence at Mount Vernon he was made to do hard labor, bricklaying and such, just like the slave he was. A far cry from the happy, privileged, near-freedom image from “A Birthday Cake For George”. Despite George Washington’s concerted effort to retrieve his slave, Hercules was never heard from again. Happy Birthday Mr. President!

As we are in the thick of the Presidential election we are bombarded daily with political spin. We have a tendency to accuse current day politicians of being the originators of this practice. However, judging from this history of our very first President, political spin has been around as long as politics itself. It’s in the fabric of our nation, practically written into the Constitution. But just as the Constitution has received amendments over the years to help it to evolve and better reflect the soul of our country, so must we consistently amend and adjust our thinking and our approach to learning, discussing and documenting history. I am grateful that in this vein Scholastic recognized their mistake with A Birthday Cake For George and moved to adjust their plan. They repealed the book, pulling it from their catalog of educational offerings. My hope is that Scholastic will regroup and move to better address the true history of our first President in a new book, no matter how inconvenient it may be. When we know more, we should do better.

 

SMILE ON!

Miss Lori

 

Look for part two of my narrative on inconvenient history tomorrow. 

 

If you enjoyed this post please read 3/5ths Justice; Walking While Black, The Zimmerman Verdict; White People Can Be Outraged Too, I’m Grieving For Another Black Child Gone Too Soon, and Telling Kids The Truth About Standing Up For Yourself.

 

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