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A cheerful story about early America’s immigrant workers

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Do they look unhappy to you?

Just in time for Presidents’ Day, a book for parents who want to teach their children that slavery, American style, wasn’t that bad.

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.

Aside from, you know, the problem of being slaves.

Jesus, did I just have to write that?

The second paragraph of the foreward suggests it was written by people on another planet and placed under the the first graph by robots.

Or the creeps at Scholastic were just bright enough to realize the book is – in modern parlance – problematic, but not bright enough to realize it shouldn’t have made it past the Send Reject Notice & Wash Hands stage.

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.

And on Washington’s 65th birthday, Hercules took advantage of the celebrations to show how happy and joyful he was to be a slave, by escaping.

But not Delia who belonged to Martha and died a slave, as did her two brothers.

The End!

(Belated aside – I’m sort of surprised the book was released on Jan. 6, rather than 15 or 18).

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  • gertrudesays

    Thanks (I think?). I don’t have small kids, but sent the link around to people I know who have them. This is the sort of structure that allows the adult reading to the kid to slide right past the horror (and, bonus?, the kid learns how too without ever knowing it).

  • Wow.

    Just wow.

    • DrDick

      Indeed!

    • sharculese

      Just looking at the picture I thought “oh no, this is going to be terrrrible.”

    • ThrottleJockey

      I think this raises interesting questions of how you teach slavery to young children. From the excerpts Shakezula provides I don’t see anything objectionable. This isn’t the case of the McGraw-Hill Texas History Book. Part of the desire in being a house slave, after all, was to escape the daily evils of field work. And even field slaves could find spots of happiness–when jumping the broom, for instance, or perhaps in giving birth. I thought this was a pretty accurate description: “No matter how delicious the president’s cake turns out to be, Delia and Papa will not taste the sweetness of freedom.”

      I don’t think a single, small children’s book has to present the entirety of Roots–and I was raised on Roots.

      • Hogan

        That’s ad copy, not excerpts.

        • ThrottleJockey

          Assuming the book discusses the paradox of people denied freedom celebrating the Founder of the Land of the Free, I think that’s an accurate description, at least for the house slaves.

      • Please up your game.

        • ThrottleJockey

          Not a game. I just don’t think that the ad copy you shared is horribly outrageous. Moreover I think its probably fairly realistic. You disagree? You think Hercules walked around all day, every day in abject depression, and wouldn’t get caught up in celebrating the hoopla of the boss’ big day? You think the human mind doesn’t learn to adapt to even horrifying situations and doesn’t find occasional opportunities for joy even in misery? The very article you linked to described Hercules as “a dandy” who earned his own money selling food and used the money to buy his own clothes. I rather doubt that such a man would never experience any happiness.

          • This is the opposite of up.

            • alex284

              You know, I was writing a response to TJ, but seriously, it ain’t worth it.

              But I’ll just say: “boss”? seriously?

              • ThrottleJockey

                You prefer the ring of “Massa”?

            • ThrottleJockey

              Its called “realistic”. Look it up.

  • BGinCHI

    Arbeit macht frei.

  • N__B

    But this year there is one problem–they are out of sugar.

    “Because those lazy good-for-nothing slaves in Cuba have not been doing their jobs.”

    • J. Otto Pohl

      More likely the sugar shortage would be due to the Revolutionary instability in Haiti starting in 1791. George’s 65th birthday would have been 1797.

      • The Dark God of Time

        Sugar would’ve come from British possessions in the West Indies, not Cuba or Dominica.

        • Lee Rudolph

          But presumably (even accounting for contemporary trade barriers) a reduction in the supply from Haiti (or Cuba) would have, at least, raised the price of West Indies sugar?

  • JonH

    FYI, the illustrator is a black woman.

    • brettvk

      The author appears to be south Asian as well, but I don’t think that makes the book less problematic. The lack of editorial sensitivity is amazing.

    • DrDick

      Which in no way makes the book less problematic on many, many levels.

    • njorl

      Which demonstrates that black people can absorb and propagate institutional racism directed against black people. I don’t think that is a very controversial idea. It’s almost impossible for any American not to propagate some aspect of our racist legacy at some point in our lives.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Let’s not go accusing a black woman we’ve never met of being an institutional racist, or whatever…What picture are you looking at? Did you see the picture of the real Hercules which Shakezula linked to? Its very similar to the picture on the cover!

        • njorl

          I didn’t mean to be accusatory. What I meant was that much of our culture is racist. We all absorb the culture we live in, and reflect it back. Some racist elements of that culture are bound to be reflected back at times from any of us. When you are trying to reconcile admiration for George Washington with the fact that he owned slaves, it’s going to be hard to avoid it, particularly if you’re doing it in a children’s book.

          • ThrottleJockey

            Yeah, I understand. Any one in a minority culture is subject to self-loathing…But I actually took the time to read the somewhat lengthy bio Shakezula linked to before posting and I was (literally) shocked to see the picture of the real Hercules. I was actually shocked that there was a picture of Hercules for starters. But the picture resembled this one in tone and style. In light of the bio Shakezula linked to I’m inclined to think both the pictures and ad copy were fair depictions of the actual event.

            More broadly you can still hold affectionate feelings for racists, or people who mistreat you. I certainly have and I’d argue that you aren’t really human if you haven’t. The world is a complex place.

  • ajay

    This is possibly even more awful though slightly less bizarre than that North Korean children’s book about the Lazy Pig. (“Oh no!” cried the pig. “I have only ever eaten the bread of idleness!” And so it was decided that the pig would be the one to be killed and eaten. The End.)

    • BGinCHI

      Obviously a gluten sensitivity thing going on there.

    • N__B

      The bread of idleness is best eaten with the olive oil of sensuality.

      • wjts

        “There has been much speculation recently as to my origins…. Well, today, I hope to set the rumour mill at rest – stop it grinding the flour of gossip, which makes the bread of scandal and from that the sandwich of despair.” Sir Phillip Bin, Bleak Expectations.

        • Warren Terra

          Okay, I happen to love Bleak Expectations, but you do realize essentially nobody in this country has heard of it?

          • ajay

            Their loss.

          • wjts

            Yes, but I love that line*, it was apropos, and perhaps it will prompt some of the readership to Google it. (Fans of 19th century British literature are particularly encouraged to check it out.)

            *Not as much as Dr. Hardthrasher’s “Let us see if we can burn the lunacy out of these madness-addled insaneonauts,” obviously.

            • Warren Terra

              Apprently much or all of it is on YouTube. So I guess there’s little excuse for ignorance?

              • grouchomarxist

                Thanks, Warren. Sounds like a hoot. (And it’s great that Richard Johnson has a role.) I doubt you’ve made me any less inexcusable, but at least now I can say I’m not so ignorant.

                • wjts

                  Richard Johnson is great (as is Anthony Head), but James Bachman and Geoffrey Whitehead steal the show.

                • Warren Terra

                  Geoffrey Whitehead steals every show.

                • wjts

                  “Do you want to see your stupid rugby in stupid Paris?”

                  “Rugby isn’t stupid. Paris, I grant you, is moronic.”

                  Q.E.D.

        • Hogan

          The man of thought comes to the man of words; and the man of words, duly instructed in the thought, dips the pen of desire into the ink of devotedness, and proceeds to spread it over the page of desolation. Then the nightingale of affection is heard to warble to the rose of loveliness, while the breeze of anxiety plays around the brow of expectation.

          John Henry Newman

      • BigHank53

        How about the marshmallow fluff of hedonism?

      • Ahuitzotl

        Not seal blubber?

    • KadeKo

      To all the miserable starving North Korean wretches: The west has so much food it serves itself to us!

    • keta

      If a thing is worth doing, it is worth forcing someone else to do it.

      Sir Henry at Rawlinson End

  • BGinCHI

    My four-year-old asks why the man is pouring hair into the bowl.

  • ajay

    It is tricky, though. You can see the attraction: let’s write a kids’ book about George Washington, because he is the revered Founding Father and first president and the kids have learned in school that he was perfect in every way.

    But the kids probably won’t be able to get interested in a story about constitutional negotiations or marching lots of troops around the place, so let’s write it about his home life. It can be about cookery and cleaning and things! Kids all know about that!

    And then you run across the problem that the revered father of your country treated hundreds of innocent people like property, bought them, sold them, tortured them, terrorised them into working for him all their lives without pay and was basically one Mauser 98k away from being Amon Goeth.

    PROBLEMATIC.

    • Dilan Esper

      Probably raped them too.

      I try to make this point frequently. One of the accepted privileges of slaveholding is that the patriarchs got to rape any slaves they wanted to. Even Mary Chesnut, a pro-confederate writer, said at most of the plantations she went to, the slaves’ children resembled the plantation owners.

      There was no way to document all of this, but we should basically assume that every male slaveowner raped his slaves.

      • brettvk

        In one of the episodes of “Ben Franklin’s World” podcast (sorry, can’t remember which one) the participants mulled the infertility of the Washington marriage and the unproven assertion that ol’ George had been more successful with his slaves. Somewhere else I read that the teeth for the famous dentures were harvested from his chattels.

      • ajay

        Say what you like about Amon Goeth, at least he stopped short of that.

      • Lurker

        This was, probably, one of the main reasons for one-drop laws. There were quite light-skinned slaves, people who could pass as whites. However, they were chattel, and if female, actually extraordinarily valuable, for there was a certain demand for light-skinned slaves in Southern brothels.

        In essence, the existence of light-skinned slaves was an existential threat for poor whites. If they looked like you and were slaves, what would prevent whites from being enslaved? People were aware, after all, that biblical patriarchs owned slaves of their own color and kin. Thus, the caste system based on the one-stop principle was necessary to maintain the legitimacy of the system in the eyes of the white majority.

    • LeeEsq

      Its even worse than that. A lot of people have a tendency to see the past through very rose-colored glasses even if they should know better unless they are particularly connected to whatever atrocity occurred at the time or possess a high degree of historical awareness. Even dark historical fiction like Dead Wood often comes across as making the past a badass time to live to a good chunk of the audience rather than something to be avoided.

      Many people simply see the Revolutionary Period as an exciting time when the United States was born and we can avoid that entire slavery thing and whatever was happening to the Native Americans. Its just a general problem with how people see the past. Having a clear view of history in one era doesn’t necessarily grant a clear view in all eras. There are probably people who will unleash venom at this book but think those Vikings certainly kicked ass as they raided Europe.

      • ThrottleJockey

        I don’t really have a problem with what’s written. The book is honest about slavery without delving into the horrors of it. It hopefully talks about why the slaves were “happy but bittersweet” about the festivities.

        • Warren Terra

          Oh, FFS. Does your contrarianism know no bounds?

          • Thirtyish

            See two threads down. I don’t see any reason to conclude that TJ is not deliberately trolling at least a good percentage of the time.

          • ThrottleJockey

            LOL. Its not contrarianism, its realism. Did you read the bio of the real Hercules that Shakezula linked to? Did you see the picture of the real Hercules? I think the ad copy and the cover is a more realistic depiction than whatever meme Shakezula is pushing.

            Forget about the tired single dimension depictions that get pushed. Part of the reason in being a house slave–much less a house slave who made his own money, bought his own clothes, and was called “a dandy”–was to avoid the daily deprivations and predations of field slavery. So, yeah, I would imagine that anyone had to live in such a system would have to find a psychological way to adapt to it. And that would mean finding an occasional joy–whether jumping the broom, or celebrating Christmas–amid the daily misery.

  • kayden

    So sad that Hercules had to escape without his family. What a clueless book! And so insensitive to boot.

    From the link: In April 1797, Prince Louis-Philippe of France visited Mount Vernon. His manservant spoke with Hercules’s 6-year-old daughter, and ventured that she must have been upset that she would never see her father again. The girl reportedly replied, “Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.”

  • Murc

    Was Hercules even his own name?

    Well, I mean… it was, but… I know a little bit about slave names, and a lot of times slaveholders would insist on naming children or re-naming adults to fit their own aesthetic preferences. “Christian” names, from the bible, were common, but so too were names from the classics or mythology. Cassius was one that was popular for a long time, if I recall right, as was Samson.

    • Hogan

      Also Scipio, a nice instance of slaveowner humor.

      • Thom

        These classical references were common slave names in the Atlantic world.

    • LeeEsq

      If he was born in Africa probably not.

    • ThrottleJockey

      I know a little bit about slave names

      Wow, that’s what you call erudition. I don’t know a thing about slave names. I’m not sure how you even come by that knowledge.

      • I’m not sure how you even come by that knowledge.

        Reading

      • Malaclypse

        I don’t know a thing about slave names. I’m not sure how you even come by that knowledge.

        It was discussed in both the book and movie of Roots. Which, because irony is a cruel but awesome god, you said upthread you were raised on.

        • The Temporary Name

          It’s almost like he’s completely full of shit about everything.

        • Thirtyish

          What a shock.

        • ThrottleJockey

          Really, Mal–and you usually go for more intelligent attacks–there’s a difference between “I can recall some slave names from Roots”, and what Murc said, “I know a little bit about slave names”. I mean, shit, what nigga from the ’70s hasn’t been called Kunta Kinte, or Toby, or Chicken George? What black person doesn’t know that everyone with the last name “Washington” is black? Given Murc’s statement, and the intelligence he usually brings to a topic, I gathered he was talking about more than having seen Roots.

          You’re too smart for such a dumb attack. Now Temp and Stalker-ish on the other hand, well they’re a different story. But I expect something better from you. Didn’t your grandparents live in Africa? Didn’t you go to Harvard or Yale or somesuch? I bet you could transliterate Fang into English. Do the alma mater proud my man and aim higher!

    • alex284

      He had a slave named Venus who was apparently so named by her mother.

  • Steve
    • shah8

      So closely related, in my waking fog, I thought this post was a continuation of that controversy…

  • Thom

    It was released on January 6 because that’s Epiphany, and they failed to have one.

    Along the same lines, but thankfully on a smaller scale, the local “history” museum in my suburban county near Austin is holding an “Old South Ball” on Jan. 30 as a fundraiser. On their website, it is listed as a “Civil War Ball.” But the museum director insists that they are not promoting slavery, or even war. Just a happy musical event with (rich white people’s) period costumes. Oh, and the event will be held in the courthouse, the one that has a Confederate memorial in front.

  • DrDick

    I see that the white washing of American history continues apace. I still dream of a day when we can actually teach our children the real history of this country.

  • There’s a decent portrait of Hercules by Gilbert Stuart in the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid – actually a better painting than the iconic but wooden standing one of Washington. Hercules may have commissioned it himself, when Stuart was hard up; it’s hard to see Washington paying for it. It’s average qua painting, but of great historical interest – in Washington. I posted here a suggestion for a swap with one the White House’s spare Cézannes, a far greater artist who had zero connection with American life and culture. The bright idea fell into the stony silence of curator idolatry of the Collection.

  • Gregor Sansa

    I am short-of-breath even writing this. But…

    The picture shows his daughter as having a lighter skin tone than he does. I’m not using any scare quotes in that sentence because that would be horrible, but I am intimating something utterly chilling and absolutely not fit for a children’s book, especially not a happy one about a birthday cake.

    I can point and laugh at Nikki Haley saying that the US has never had non-color-blind laws. But this kind of thing, where the whole point is to imagine the day-to-day life inside hell, hits me in the gut. In terms of whether I’d ever have it on my bookshelf, I’d put this one more in the category of “Mein Kampf” rather than just “Little Black Sambo”.

  • Origami Isopod

    Shockingly, there is an Amazon commenter who identifies themselves as a professional chef who is chiming in on all the one-star reviews to express disbelief that anyone would have a problem with this book. “Hercules was a real person. Do you think a children’s book should show Washington flogging Hercules or something? Can’t we talk about something positive for a change?”

    Sigh.

    • Downpuppy

      And there’s this comment, which is (probably) a spoof (given the only known Chad Kautzer teaches radical philosophy)-

      ByChad Kautzer on January 14, 2016
      A much needed corrective to all of those children’s books that criticize the history of slavery in the United States. I’m tired of liberal communist teachers trying to brainwash our kids about the evils of slavery. Slavery made us great and, when Trump becomes President, it will make us great again! Oh, I pray to our white lord that we’ll soon have the best children’s book of all: A Birthday Cake for Donald Trump! The lord has revealed to me that it will feature pictures of Muslims and Mexicans baking cakes in their cages and without pay. Thank you for paving the way to that future!

      • ckautzer

        You’re absolutely right, downpuppy! I wrote that post and I’m also author of the book Radical Philosophy. It was intended as satire, but clearly not very good satire, given how many people mistook me for a super evil person. :)

    • alex284

      Can’t we talk about something positive for a change? Like slavery?

      Why does everyone think I’m an asshole?

  • pianomover

    And on Washington’s 65th birthday, Hercules took advantage of the celebrations to show how happy and joyful he was to be a slave, by escaping, but not before dipping his balls in the batter.

  • Bruce Vail

    I’ll wait to read the whole book before heaping scorn of Scholastic Books; It seems they were interested in providing a history-based tale involving slavery to young readers. That’s a step in the right direction.

    They certainly should have done a better job with the cover illustration…

    • Nick056

      What? No. It’s not a step in the right direction. Americans have always told stories about slavery, but unfortunatly a lot of those stories are lies, like this one. Amazon review even says it’s a bad book.

    • Malaclypse

      Right, this is not better. Since it hasn’t been mentioned, Scholastic fliers go out to basically every elementary-school child in America.

      This may be below grade level for mini-Mal, but she’ll get a flier next month, like every month. And thanks to this post, I’ll look for the book, and if it there, we’ll have a teaching moment. But lots of kids will read just the blurb, and nothing more, and that’s simply fucking awful.

  • Nick056

    To Amazon’s credit (I guess) their own reprinted product review recommends not buying this book because it will mislead the ignorant and offend the conscious.

    Appalling.

  • cpinva

    when I first looked at the book cover, and read the description, I assumed this book came out in the 50’s or 60’s, which would be bad enough, but not particularly shocking. to find out it’s just been released is, well……………..a stunning indictment of both the author and publisher, and whatever delusional world they live in. I hope it has zero sales.

  • grouchomarxist

    Oh, Lordy …

    Looks like Scholastic’s trying to broaden its appeal to the homeschooling market. That’s the only semi-logical explanation I can conjure up for this title.

    But it does beg the question: Anyone out there know of books for the same age group with — shall we say — a somewhat more realistic take on what it meant to be a slave? How do you, and should you even attempt to introduce a very young child to this aspect of our history? I’m for a warts-and-all approach to teaching history, but when and how do you go about it?

    • Katya

      Henry’s Freedom Box or Freedom Song are both about Henry “Box” Brown
      Under the Quilt of Night
      If You Lived When There Was Slavery in America
      Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans
      Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom
      The Listeners

  • Katya

    The School Library Journal is pretty scathing:

    Gr 1–3—A troubling depiction of American slavery. In a famous Philadelphia kitchen, chef Hercules prepares to make the perfect birthday cake for his master, President George Washington. When he discovers that there is no more sugar in the pantry, Hercules scrambles to find a suitable substitute, enlisting the help of the other slaves and servants. Based on the real figure of Hercules, who was owned by the first president and served as his chef, the story is told through the eyes of Hercules’s young daughter, Delia, who describes her papa as a “general in the kitchen.” The text explains that Hercules was one of Washington’s most trusted slaves and was given more freedom than most; he could be seen in fine clothes walking the streets of Philadelphia or enjoying tickets to the theater. The story revolves around Hercules, Delia, and the other slaves finding a replacement for the sugar and carefully baking the cake. Brantley-Newton’s colorful, cartoon-style double-page illustrations, combined with the light tone of the text, convey a feeling of joyfulness that contrasts starkly with the reality of slave life. One spread depicts dancing feet and the hems of fancy dresses and shoes of the white revelers at the very top of the page. Hercules, Delia, and the other slaves are seen in the kitchen below, smiling with glee as they work on the cake, evoking a strangely cheerful and exuberant scene reminiscent of a Disney film. Later, when Washington congratulates Hercules on a job well done, Hercules responds, “An honor and a privilege, sir.” Young readers without sufficient background knowledge about the larger context of American slavery may come away with a dangerously rosy impression of the relationship between slaves and slave owners, and those with a deeper understanding are likely to find this depiction offensive. An appended note explains that Hercules was a real person, now thought of by some culinary historians as “the first celebrity chef in America.” Ganeshram states that Hercules eventually escaped but that his children, including narrator Delia, were owned by Martha Washington and remained enslaved their entire lives. The somber facts recounted in small print at the end of the author’s note are unfortunately not reflected in either the text or the illustrations of the story that precedes them. Adding insult to injury, the back matter concludes with a recipe for “Martha Washington’s Great Cake,” courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. VERDICT A highly problematic work; not recommended.—Kiera Parrott, School Library Journal

  • keta

    After the kiddies are done reading about the joys of slave cookery, they can open up a classic fairy tale with a special NRA twist.

    O. Henry was a piker.

  • Katya

    Speaking of slaves at Mount Vernon, if you have not already seen this, you absolutely must. Lizzie Mae is a delight.

    • keta

      She is indeed. Thanks for this.

    • cpinva

      loved it! I think i’ll have to make a special trip to Mt. Vernon, just to ask them about Lizzie Mae. oh what fun that shall be!

  • Roger Ailes

    The cover is a giant spoiler.

    And why isn’t Delia wearing a hairnet?

    • cpinva

      “And why isn’t Delia wearing a hairnet?”

      well, unfortunately OSHA has way too few inspectors, so they only get around to each kitchen once every 20 years or so.

  • alex284

    It’s so surprising that an NYT columnist wrote this book.

    • cpinva

      “It’s so surprising that an NYT columnist wrote this book.”

      not really. the NYT’s of my youth is not the NYT’s of today.

  • Warren Terra
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