The Other 99.4% of Hercules

Finding or replacing sugar wasn’t going to keep George Washington’s slave happy.

I tell you. You just can’t make this stuff up sometimes.

This week, I learned about a rather unfortunate release by Scholastic Press, a subsidiary of Scholastic Corporation. The same company that owns Scholastic Books – that one that got me excited about reading as a child with their take home flyer to order books right in your classroom. The same one that’s getting millions of children now excited about reading.

On January 5, 2016, Scholastic released a book entitled A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The title seems simple and innocent enough. But…wait until you read this description…

Everyone is buzzing about the president’s birthday! Especially George Washington’s servants, who scurry around the kitchen preparing to make this the best celebration ever. Oh, how George Washington loves his cake! And, oh, how he depends on Hercules, his head chef, to make it for him. Hercules, a slave, takes great pride in baking the president’s cake. But this year there is one problem–they are out of sugar.

This story, told in the voice of Delia, Hercules’s young daughter, is based on real events, and underscores the loving exchange between a very determined father and his eager daughter, who are faced with an unspoken, bittersweet reality. No matter how delicious the president’s cake turns out to be, Delia and Papa will not taste the sweetness of freedom.

New York Times food writer Ramin Ganeshram and acclaimed illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton serve up a slice of history in a picture book narrative that will surely satisfy. (1)

Actually…no…it DOESN’T satisfy.

The fact that the word servant is used before the word slave usually indicates that there is a side of history being served that is going to cause a bout of historical poisoning…and no one wants to sit or swarm around the bathroom.

Let’s get the facts out first…

  1. Yes, Hercules was a real person who was enslaved by the first president of the United States, George Washington. As in he was considered 3/5ths of a person or being 0.6% of his entire being was legally considered a living, breathing human.
  2. Hercules was indeed a cook for Pres. Washington.
  3. Hercules did have a daughter named Delia.
  4. Hercules ran away. As in escaped. As in wasn’t enjoying his enslavement so much that he refused the opportunity to leave when it presented itself. (2)

Fact number four was included in author’s notes but NOT in the story with the pretty pictures.

The Other Side of the Game

As I’ve learned from my own family members, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement wasn’t as “everyone is on the same page” as it was presented to me throughout my educational career in books, teaching, and more. I now know this was wrong: there were multitudes of people, including many African Americans, who did not want integration at all and didn’t see the point of all the marching, protesting, arrests, and deaths. There should be different narratives about the Civil Rights Movement and slavery in the world.

On the other hand, to make a choice to present financially motivated admiration as a positive source of empowerment, pride, and contentment to children is ridiculous. Pres. Washington’s selfish motivation could buy all the fine clothes and counterfeit status it wanted to for Hercules, but it could never buy his freedom. Ever.

It gives children the impression that slaves were eagerly frolicking through plantations across the United States, dancing to their hearts content about their condition as in a music video featuring Pharrell Williams; happy and willing to be work for free, have no rights, and to break their neck pleasing people who calculated their value like they did the feather beds or carriages in their possession.

By choosing not to focus on Hercules’ efforts to reclaim his humanity, it made his life only as valuable as his culinary skills. And we really want to teach children that their value is in the things they do and not WHO they are?

“Sorry, not sorry”

So, at this point you’re thinking “Ok, there’s no way people on social media didn’t contact them to express their outrage.” You’re right. But you’re not ready for the level of “Sorry, not sorry” that got served by the book people.

On January 15, 2016, Scholastic released the following statement care of their blog, On Our Minds:

Over the past few days, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, the new picture book by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, has generated an important discussion about the depiction of slavery in children’s books. At Scholastic, we value the opinions and feedback from our community, and we appreciate your comments and respect your views on this complex matter.

We hope that you will take the time to read both the author’s comments and the editor’s comments which address many of your concerns and provide more information on why the author, Ramin Ganeshram, chose to depict the characters as she did. Ganeshram is a leading scholar in the field of Washingtonian history—and the mother of a school-aged daughter—who spent years researching the life of Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved chef and the person on whom this book is based.  In her comments linked above, she explains the choices she made for the book.

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 here and here. (3)

So, they basically said “Read what the author and editor said because they’re of African descent. Their opinion is the same opinion as yours because you’re Black too. So, we’re not gonna do anything because you all proved that all Black people don’t think the same. We heard you, but we don’t care.”

It Gets Even Worse

So while the author and editor opine about the “admiration” that Pres. Washington showed Hercules, a simple Google search unearthed direct accounts of how Pres. Washington and his wife, Martha, felt about their slaves. No pretty Hotline Blingesque backing track to make things nice and dancey.

In short, this historian, who I want to give a virtual dap, hug, pound, and everything in between to – named Kathryn Gehred – came in and shut the whole party down. Like, came and dropped about 50-11 pieces “Naw baby” with a side of “The lie detector test determined THAT was a lie” on Scholastic. Full receipts are here for your reading satiation. But below is pretty much all you need to know…

Charlotte’s behavior was profoundly dangerous for an enslaved person. The following account, written by Washington’s farm manager Anthony Whitting, shows some of the consequences of being an “impudent” slave.

“Charlotte I Guess will be reported Sick this week I Gave her a Whiping on Saturday & I find She dont intend to work in order I suppose to be even with Me When I was Culling out the River hogs she sent by Muddy hole David requesting I would Give her a Spear rib as She Long’d for it this I knew to be false and thought it to be a piece of impudence in her which She has a Great Share of I did not send it but on Saturday I sent one to each of the Women at the Qu[arte]r of Course She had one with the rest but She I fancy watch’d me home & as soon as I got in the house brings the Spear rib & thro’s down at the Door (affronted I suppose at my not sending it on Thursday) told me indeed She wanted none of my Meat & was in Short very impudent I took a hickory Switch which I rode with & Gave her a very Good Whiping She certainly could come for nothing else, On Monday Morning Mrs Ehlers informed me She had sent her work but Charlotte had sent it back I went to the Qur & Gave a little more but I believe She has not done any thing yet under a pretence of her finger receiving a blow & was Swelld She threatens me very much with informing Lady Washington when She comes home & says She has not been whipd for 14 Years past, but I fully expect I shall have to Give her some More of it before She will behave herself for I am determined to lower her Spirit or Skin her Back.” 4

George Washington responded to this letter, writing “Your treatment of Charlotte was very proper—and if she, or any other—of the Servants will not do their duty by fair means—or are impertinent, correction (as the only alternative) must be administered.” 5

For George Washington, keeping enslaved servants in line by punishing those who behaved in an “impertinent” way was in his interest. He was the master, they were the slaves. If he could not control them there was a chance they could revolt and escape. (4)

History has taught us that stubborn powers that be respond quickly to the withdrawal support from a large segment of their customers base when the customers’ interests are not protected or addressed. Here’s what you can do:

Sign a petition.

There are currently a number of Change.org petitions circulating. Here are two:

Call for your school board, PTA, etc. to remove Scholastic as their vendor of choice in favor of another one. 

Flood Scholastic’s email and social media channels with your disgust. Here are links:

Sources

(1) “A Birthday Cake for George Washington Hardcover – January 5, 2016.” A Birthday Cake for George Washington: Ramin Ganeshram, Vanessa Brantley-Newton: 9780545538237: Amazon.com: Books. Amazon.Com, n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2016. <http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0545538238?ie=UTF8&isInIframe=1&n=283155&redirect=true&ref_=dp_proddesc_0&s=books&showDetailProductDesc=1#iframe-wrapper>.

(2) “Hercules.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2016. <http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/article/hercules/>.

(3) “Response on A Birthday Cake for George Washington.” Response on A Birthday Cake for George Washington. N.p., 15 Jan. 2016. Web. 17 Jan. 2016. <http://oomscholasticblog.com/post/response-birthday-cake-george-washington>.

(4) Gehred, Kathryn. “News – “I Am Determined to Lower Her Spirit or Skin Her Back”” Papers of George Washington. N.p., 15 Jan. 2016. Web. 17 Jan. 2016. <http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/i-am-determined-to-lower-her-spirit-or-skin-her-back/>.

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2 thoughts on “The Other 99.4% of Hercules”

  1. Jack Carpenter

    “Let’s get the facts out first…
    Yes, Hercules was a real person who was enslaved by the first president of the United States, George Washington. As in he was considered 3/5ths of a person or being 0.6% of his entire being was legally considered a living, breathing human.”
    I am confused by the math, isn’t 3/5ths = 60%, or am I mistaken?

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