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Friday, January 15, 2016

George Washington -- and the slave connection

George Washington -- and the slave connection

In 2015  Schwartz & Wade published A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Dessert by Emily Jenkins, with illustrations by Sophie Blackall.  The book was lauded with a number of starred reviews and mentioned several times as a serious Caldecott 2016 contender.
The book began in 1710 in England and followed four children in four families, each of which made a favorite dessert for the family.  Then someone took a close look at the 8 page sequence that takes place in 1810.  In this sequence it is a slave woman and child who makes the Blackberry Fool for their master.  And while the sequence is historically placed, some took offense at the fact that the slaves were only shown smiling and that one particular episode described the young girl and her mother are hiding in a cupboard licking the bowl clean.  The controversy surrounded that episode.  Read more about that at this entry on the NPR blog.

Donnella, Leah. (2015 Oct 30). The kids' book 'A Fine Dessert' has award buzz — and charges of whitewashing.  National Public Radio.  (Blog) Retrieved from

The fall out came quick and hard.  Eventually Emily Jenkins issued an apology.  In that apology she referenced the discussion of the book on a popular blog,  Reading While White.  "As the author of A Fine Dessert, I have read this discussion and the others with care and attention.  I have come to understand that my book, while intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive. I own that and am very sorry”  (Jenkins quoted in Barack, 2015).

While the book is focused on the generations of families that made Blackberry Fool (recipe) -- and it is a great and quick dessert, the book did a disservice to the cultural sensitivity of the times.

While I most likely would not read this book to elementary readers of any age -- just because I would want to have a serious discussion about the depictions of the enslaved family, and the implications of the "smiling slaves" and I'm not convinced there is any suitable spot in most elementary school curriculum.  However, the Civil War is often part of the history curriculum in middle school and sometimes the high school.  I think this book has much potential for starting a great discussion as well as promote some serious research on the issue of slavery in the United States.

But then in 2016 along came another book with a story line, that on the surfaced seemed very similar.  This title was in many ways the same and in some ways very different - still the smiling slaves.  This one details the backstory of the cake traditionally made for George Washington's Birthday -- A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram, with illustrations by Vanessa Brantley Newton (Scholastic, 2016).  It did not take many long to note the similarities.  In  this story Hercules's story is told through the eyes of his daughter Delia.  Hercules's is an enslaved chef who is charged with creating a cake for the president's birthday.  In this book, slavery is also a side issue -- one that to many with problems similar to the issues foisted upon A Fine Dessert.   Vicky Smith of Kirkus Reviews quickly brought the comparison to the forefront (Smith, 2016).

While A Fine Dessert was created by bookpeople who are not people of color, A Birthday Cake for George Washington was created by an author of Iranian and Trinidadian heritage; the illustrator and editor are both African-Americans.  It was the editor Andrea Davis Pinkney who felt it important to write a response to those who were making comparisons between A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington.  She did that in a guest blog post for the Scholastic: On Our Minds blog.  In that blog she outlines the differences between the manner in which the institution of slavery is presented.  Pinkney says, "Ramin notes that George Washington understood that it was evil to own fellow human beings, and that he was very conflicted about his part in the wicked institution known as slavery" (2016).  That understanding is very much called into question by many historians who note that since slaves would be freed if they lived in Pennsylvania for more than 6 months at a time, the Washingtons kept careful records and rotated their slaves between Philadephia and Mount Vernon in order to avoid having to free any of the slaves (Hofmann, 2015).  Several reviewers have commented that this is based on a true story -- never mind that Hercules never baked a cake and that while he is depicted as a prominent man in Philadelphia during this time - he was also a slave.  Much is made about his prominence but only one word discusses his status as a slave.  And only in the notes do we find out that Hercules ran away just one year later.  Hard to find the truth in this tale.
In 2007, a book by Emily Arnold McCully, The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington's Slave Finds Freedom, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  This book tells the fictionalized story of Martha Washington's house slave who escaped to freedom while living in Philadelphia.  It is a difficult to obtain title, but well worth the search. 
In 2017, Holiday House will release Buried Lives: Slaves of George Washington's Mount Vernon, written by an author well-known for her meticulous research and superb writing, Carla Killough McClafferty.  An discussion of these two books: A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington, along side of McClafferty's information filled title should make for an interesting look at how history is portrayed along side of the facts.

More Research -- Scholars who are interested in pursuing the topic of African Americans as they interact with presidents might be interested in a reading (or purusing) of this 575 page book by Clarence Lusane.  The book - Black History of the White House (City Lights Books, 2013) tells us much more about Washington's interaction with slaves and the evolution of presidential relationships within the presidency -- up to the time that President Barack Obama was president.

This NBC article about Blacks in the White House is an interesting read: Associated Press.  (2008 Dec 8) Blacks in the White House: Slavery and service.  White House on  Retrieved from

And a scholarly book about the slaves that lived in the White House long before President Obama became president -- read this article.  Mansky, Jackie. (2016) The Slaves of the White House Finally Get to Have Their Stories Told.  Retrieved from .

Holland, Jesse J. (2016) The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House.  Bettman/Corbis. 


Barack, Lauren.  (2015 Nov 5). Emily Jenkins apologizes for "A Fine Dessert." School Library Journal (Blog). Retrieved from  

Campbell, Edi.  (2016 Jan 13) Book Review: A Birthday Cake for George Washington.  Crazy QuiltEdi: Promoting literacy for teens of color one book at a time (Blog) Retrieved from 

Ganeshram, Ramin. (2016) A Birthday Cake for George Washington.  Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton.   Scholastic.  

Hofmann, Sudie. (2015 Feb 15).  Time to tell the truth about slavery at Mount Vernon.  Teaching a People's History: Zinn Education Project.  Retrieved from

Jenkins, Emily.  (2015) A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Dessert.  Illustrated by Sophie Blackall.  Schwartz & Wade.

Lusane, Clarence. (2013) Black History of the White House.  City Light Books.

Mansky, Jackie. (2016) The Slaves of the White House Finally Get to Have Their Stories Told.  Retrieved from .

McClafferty, Carla Killough.  (2017) Buried Lives: Slaves of George Washington's Mount Vernon.  Holiday House.

McCully, Emily Arnold.  (2007) The Escape of Onely Judge: Martha Washington's Slave Finds Freedom.  Farrar Straus Giroux.

Smith, Vicky. (2016 Jan 4).  Smiling slaves in a post -- A Fine Dessert world: Figuring out that intelligent people can disagree.  Kirkus Reviews.  Retrieved from

Update:  (January 17, 2016) Scholastic is announcing today that we are stopping the distribution of the book entitled A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and will accept all returns.  Read full announcement at
and the article about the withdrawal from Huffington Post at 

And read the author's comments on the withdrawal of the book and her personal reaction to the book's illustrations.
Ganeshram, Ramin. (2016 Feb 18) My book on George Washington was banned. Here's my side of the story.  The Guardian.  Retrieved from

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