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And He Couldn't Tell a Lie: New Scholastic Book Distorts Truth About George Washington's Real Slave Chef Hercules

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A few years ago I was touring the Underground Railroad Museum  and I fell in behind a group of sixth graders. Their ability to process the material presented in the museums was impressive. At every turn, these kids had searching and insightful questions, which more often than not doubled back to a single question: “how could human beings enslave other people?” The adult chaperones were completely wigged out by these questions, but thankfully the museum staff handled these questions with grace and truth, which the kids appreciated. (You can’t tap dance around serious subjects or kids will see right through you).

Which brings us to the Scholastic book A Birthday Cake for George Washington, which depicts Chef Hercules as he tries to bake just the right cake for his master. In the book, Chef Hercules and his daughter Delia have a great time trying to find the right ingredients to make an awesome birthday cake for Washington, aka, their slave master. They take a jaunty trip to town to pick up some sugar, then return to present the cake to Martha and George, who are totally pleased with the Chef’s beautiful cake.

Oh but it gets worse. This book is based on a real person who Chef Hercules enslaved. Rather than baking a birthday cake for the president, Hercules escaped to freedom on the night February 22, 1797, which happened to be Washington’s birthday. Washington was not a benevolent master. He deliberately denied freedom to many, including Chef Hercules, when he took up residence in Philadelphia. When good old George learned that under state law, any resident of the state could free themselves after six months of residency, he shipped them back to Mount Vernon to evade the law. People like Hercules were shipped back and forth, often just days before they would have been eligible for freedom.

That’s the bitter truth.

The writer of the book, Ramin Ganeshram, says she aimed to teach children about the “bittersweet” reality of being a slave. This book does not do that. The characterization of a slave’s life as “bittersweet” is somewhat undercooked. Slaves were life human beings, so of course we all agree they could feel love, joy, boredom and satisfaction even in the midst of the crushing hell of being “owned” by another human being. However, just because people can simultaneously feel joy in the midst of torture, destruction and heartbreak does not mean that one ought to depict Hercules giggling happily about his swank job as a baker for George Washington. There was no “sweet” to go with the bitter in this case.

The Joy of Forced Labor

Let’s play a thought game. Imagine if we did a children’s book about a Jewish baker who was forced to cook for the Nazis. Would we describe his situation as bittersweet? No. I realize that whenever you drag Nazi Germany into an argument, people get twitchy. I understand. Am I equating George Washington with Hitler? Not really, but Jewish slaves were used by the Nazis and by many German corporations at the time to do manual labor. We all know what happened next.

But no one would publish a book about how proud the Jewish people were of the work they did for General Motors, Krupp and Volkswagen despite the hardship of being a Jew in Nazi Germany. No one.

But this pride in their talents and jobs is how Ganeshram chooses to defend the book.

“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. 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.”

Yes indeed, there are great complexities involving the positions of slaves and their status on the plantations. But simplifying them under the guise of recognizing that Hercules was a kick-ass baker seems fatuous to me, particularly when Washington did everything he could to ensure that Hercules remained enslaved. There is no evidence that Hercules enjoyed the “perks” of his position. When he escaped (which Ganeshram describes as ‘he ran away’) he left his six-year old daughter behind at Mount Vernon. Historical sources say Delia was sad her father was gone, but happy he was free.

That’s a tragedy, not a moral lesson about perks of being a house slave.

A Contestant on the Next Great Baker?

Ganeshram says that critics like me 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.” This is a mind-boggling statement. Hercules was a skilled baker, but he was also resourceful enough to escape from the White House! That is what we should be celebrating and that is what the book would have been about if it was what it claimed to be – “based on a true story.”

As we learned time and again at the Underground Railroad Museum, African Americans who escaped were incredibly inventive, skilled, daring, and courageous. They created vast networks of people and modes of communication that were so well hidden that even today we do not know the full story of how they managed it. They were so resourceful books have been written about it:

Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad

No More! Stories and Songs of Slave Resistance

Love Twelve Miles Long 

A Freedom River

She Could Only Tell a Lie

Ganeshram’s defense puts the lie to an entire theory that continually bounces around American politics, that slavery was bad but not all that bad for everybody. Bull. She says there may have been something like “perks” to being a slave if you were assigned to the President of the United States. But Chef Hercules wasn’t a contestant on the Next Great Baker. He wasn’t working in Downton F’ing Abbey. The man was denied his freedom, a situation so desperate it tore his family apart. That was slavery. There were no real perks.

African Americans were annihilated by people like Washington and his fellow slave owners. This does not invalidate aspects of the American experiment which may fairly be attributed to Washington, but it does mean that we must take things with a huge grain of salt. That means not dumping sugar over everything involving the founding of our country. Those worried about kids should remember that they have a surprising ability to handle nuance. They will thank us for not betraying them with historical lies.

Despite being several hundred years out of official slavery in America, these kinds of books still get published because Americans have blind spot about slavery, what it was, who did it, and its consequences. Perhaps this is because we are not very many years past debt servitude or Jim Crow laws, the successors to slavery, and we are afraid to acknowledge real suffering and its inevitable echoes in our own time.

Alex is a lawyer and opinionated.

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