George Washington's Slaves Are Super Happy About Making a Cake for Him

A planned book published by Scholastic has been pulled after overwhelmingly negative reviews in trade journals and by the public.

The defense that the author and publisher have mounted is whitewashing, whitesplaining yummy goodness:


As someone noted over on Jezebel, how excited could Hercules have been about this cake business when he ran away (wait for it…) on (waaaaiiit…) George Washington’s birthday:


"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. 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.”

Come on guys, slavery wasn’t all bad - some slaves were so happy to get a promotion, can’t we just look on the bright side of slavery? Hercules might have for some reason escaped once he got the chance, but still, um, you know, let’s celebrate his accomplishment of working his way up to becoming a house slave.

Perhaps Ganeshram could write a follow-up book on the wonderful songs slaves got to sing while working in the fields?


Can a mixed-race person who isn’t white whitesplain?

But I agree, this book should be pulpdf, lest people think slavery is anything but a simple black-and-white issue that has already been solved.

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I did not find the author’s statement to be as ignorant as suggested. For example:

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.

In our modern society, we abhor holding two competing truths in our minds. It is simply too hard. How could one person enslave another and at the same time respect him? It’s difficult to fathom, but the fact remains it was true. We owe it to ourselves—and those who went before—to try and understand this confusing and uncomfortable truth. To refuse to do so diminishes their history to one-dimensional histories that may give comfort to some but ultimately rob us all of the potential for real understanding.

We do want to get past simplistic portrayals of unequal human interactions. Acknowledging that some slaves were able to carve out at least some personal agency is factual and takes the conversation further than general condemnation. We all know slavery is bad. Now let’s acknowledge that even when it isn’t absolutely excruciatingly painful at every moment for every slave, it is still bad. It’s bad even when a slave has as much “freedom” as Chef Hercules had.


The author appears to have hit on the high-yield-smarm tactic of choosing something that is (A) true; (B) orthogonal to the point, and © can be held up as though it indicates superior nuance and maturity with respect to the point.

Yes, sure, it’s rarely hard to find people who aren’t angling for a less-worse outcome; but treating your oh-so-nuanced knowledge of that fact as terribly relevant to the surrounding worse outcome is serious weasel wordery.

Since her tastes seem to run culinary, rather than musical, maybe a “Vichy Haute Cuisine” themed followup? Plenty of relative comfort and dapper german guests to write about.


There is a place for a more nuanced understanding of the human experience of slaves. If they’d written an essay or a novel that looked at the complexities of life that included a more holistic view of life on Mt. Vernon for the other slaves I’d think they could have an interesting novel.

The author penned a children’s book about the happy slaves who merrily baked a cake for their master. Backing it up with an appeal to nuance in a society where history books are still being rewritten to diminish the negative aspects of slavery makes them look either willfully blind or just really dense. If their book hadn’t been pulped it would have been be a real hit in the deep South and wouldn’t have been used to promote the author’s nuanced view of the life of a slave. If an author’s looking for nice examples for a piece of children’s literature about people who were resourceful and worked hard to achieve a better lot there are countless better examples than a :cake:ing house slave.


Absolutely. I haven’t seen this book, so I don’t know how nuanced it might be. I guess I was hoping for the best case scenario. There are certainly ways to get the point across to children. No idea whether or not it was really done that way, though.

The book’s blurb looked pretty damning:


Yeah, like Mount Vernon was ever out of sugar :wink:


Indeed. Perhaps that could be explored in a sequel, showing the daily joys of Hercules’ long lost cousin on a sugar plantation somewhere.


Add this to the list of topics Not To Be Discussed Ever

My own view is that its capacity to be physically painful isn’t the evil of slavery. Some people pay good money for treatment at which the the rest of us would quail. Someone people choose to live as slaves to others. The key is choice. When someone is the legal property of another, their agency is false. That’s why I submit that this sort of narrative is even more insidious. In some ways, the only thing more dangerous than the deprivation of choice is the illusion of choice.


Medicinal Opium for Thomas Jefferson is a better read anyway.

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Uncle Thomas Jefferson’s Cabin?

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I would’ve liked to have had the chance to actually read the book to know if it is awful whitewashing or a surprisingly nuanced and balanced look at life as a house slave for the President in 1790. But as it’s been pulped, we can only take the word of reviews and horrified comments from those who have only seen its title and blurb.

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It was in print for a little while before Scholastic pulped it (there are currently some used copies on Amazon), so you can read the reviews of horrified parents who actually bought the thing as well as the horrified reviews from librarians and others. From what’s been presented it doesn’t seem like deliberate whitewashing or a nuanced and balanced account, but the product of a really clueless but sincere author with a deeper interest in cooking than anything else taking a swing and a miss.


You really do make it sound like an opportunity missed. Is this a favorite genre of yours? What other titles have, in your experience, have held such nuance and balance despite the publishers likely unprofitable decision to stop, that you hold such hope for this one?

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Er, no, but I am the sort of person who likes to experience/read things rather than take others’ word for it, especially when the reviews are of the clutching-at-pearls sort. If I were a kids’ book publisher, I wouldn’t think of publishing a book about slaves cheerfully making a cake. That’s a terrible idea in 2016. My hope would be that they’d published it because it was surprisingly balanced or well researched, setting it apart. Sounds like that’s likely not the case.


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