Rants & Reflections

On smiling slaves and censorship

So. I’m really excited to write this post because it’s meaty. It’s inspired by a class I’m taking right now, and I’m glad to have this extra blogging inspiration; it was one of my undergrad English classes that inspired me to blog about books originally, and now that I’m doing my Master’s, I’m hoping to put up more academic-y posts. Anyway, there is something I must say before I begin:

I am a white, American, middle-class, straight, cisgendered human, so I am writing from a position of great privilege and I will try my best to bear this in mind. If I write anything that is incorrect or offensive or ignorant or insensitive, please respectfully correct me, and I will do my best to learn from it.

One of the children’s books listed on our required reading for my class (Information Books and Resources for Youth) posed an availability problem to the students. Before the class even began for the term, a student found that the only available copies of this children’s book were going for 75 bucks on Amazon! Many libraries do not have copies. Even used copies were in the 40-50 dollar range! My professor emailed us about the concern, explaining that the book had gone out of print, and that she would provide a few images of it during the lecture so we didn’t have to break the bank. The book? A Birthday Cake for George Washington.

I managed to get a copy through interlibrary loan, and the moment I read it, I realized why it had gone out of print. The premise: a group of slaves working in George Washington’s household are tasked to bake a birthday cake for him – except they run out of sugar!

As I turned each page, I could feel my brow furrowing and my confusion getting stronger. The story is so happy. These slaves are so excited to make this cake. They make the cake. It’s delicious. Washington congratulates them on their delicious cake. And the books ends happily, slaves smiling the entire time. Close book. Excuse me…what?

Our professor had us read several articles about this book with varying opinions on what happened next. As you can imagine, the book provoked an outcry. Scholastic repealed its publication. I was surprised to learn that I hadn’t head about this. It caused such a big stir and I completely missed it. So if you are reading this like, “yeah, old news, Emily, old news,” I apologize. I will now get to the point of this post.

The question this raised across the literary world is one of censorship. Repealing the publication of a book after its release is basically like erasing it out of existence; it’s worse than banning it. Advocates for free speech were concerned that this could open the gates to repealing more titles that have potentially offensive content, and if that becomes the case, where do we draw the line? There will always be someone fighting for the repeal or banning of books for content they find harmful, misrepresented, or down right wrong. But in our country, you have the protected right to publish whatever you damn well please, even if it’s blatantly racist.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington was written, illustrated, and edited by women of color whose intention was to send the message that despite the atrocity of slavery, there were moments of happiness and pride for the work the slaves did. After all, Washington’s head chef, Hercules, was celebrated as a master of his art, was given special privileges, and was widely respected as a chef. It’s fine to have glimpses of happiness and pride within a slave narrative; I’m sure Hercules was a man with love for his family and friends, and I’m sure they had many joyful moments together. He was probably proud of being such an amazing chef. But the problem with the book is that it is all joy – there is no context whatsoever. He was a slave. As in, George and Martha Washington would take their slaves with them on trips because if the slaves remained in Philadelphia for a certain amount of time, they would be freed. Martha and George needed to “reset” their slaves’ status, as the author’s note in the back of the book tells us. Like…what?? Ok, yeah, put the ugly truth in the 10-point font, full-page author’s note in the back of the book where no kid (or adult for that matter) will ever read it and hope the rest of the story gets interpreted the way you intended.

Literature is always up to the interpretation of the reader, and once a book is published, the author’s intentions do not matter. But I cannot imagine someone reading this book and getting the message that was apparently intended. The author of the book wrote an article in which she implied that the illustrator was to blame for misconstruing the story by depicting the slaves as smiling. But the words have no indication regarding the dark context behind the story either, so I understand why the illustrator interpreted the text as joyous. The editors severely fucked up. Editors, it’s your job to take what the author wants to get across and make sure it does. It didn’t. Ya fucked up, editors.

As mentioned above, some have argued that recalling the publication of this book is a black mark against free press and point for censorship. In addition, they argue that books like A Birthday Cake for George Washington are important to serve as warnings and red flags. They provide opportunities to learn and critique the various misrepresentations of slavery throughout literary history. The book simply adds to a wealth of existing literature that misrepresents slavery, and we can use this literature to analyze history and learn the error of our ways. On one hand, the author of the book (in her same article) expresses the concern that if we start banning books that grapple with race, how are we supposed to continue the critical conversation about representation we so badly need? But on the other, Daniel José Older claims that this is a privileged opinion. We don’t need more books like this to learn from; we have enough already.

But is recalling it taking it a step too far? How about just choose not to read it and warn others not to read it? It makes me uncomfortable to see a book be repealed after publication because I am a future librarian, and banning books goes against our very cores! This quote our professor shared perfectly sums up my quandary:

“I’m confused. Are we as librarians supposed to be outraged at the censorship of this book, or outraged at the subject of the book?” -Commenter from this article in the School Library Journal

A Birthday Cake for George Washington is NOT unique. Plenty of total shit books with total shit points of view and representations are published every year. Do we ban them all, then? If we start recalling them all, we face a huge censorship problem. We have the precious choice of what we pick up to read, and taking away that power to choose is belittling at best, unfair at ok, undemocratic at bad, and totalitarian at worst. Is this a privileged opinion, too? I don’t know. I probably wouldn’t select A Birthday Cake for George Washington to be part of my library, and would definitely not allow my hypothetical future children to read it. But repealing its publication is just as dangerous as the content of the book.

If you want more perspectives on the matter, click this link, which will lead you to 3 different opinion articles, some of which I paraphrased here in this post (and hyperlinked when doing so). Click here to read the statement from Scholastic. I’d like to know what you think. Feel free to discuss away in the comments, and thanks for reading.

Birthday Cake for George Washington Recalled


23 thoughts on “On smiling slaves and censorship”

  1. I’m not sure that I can agree with you that this book isn’t racist. I mean sure its supposed to be happy or whatever but the fact of the matter is that he was a slave. Owned by another human being. Having “special privileges” doesn’t change that or make it okay. It’s one thing to talk about the life of slaves but making it seem like rainbows and butterflies is BS so what about that censorship and not telling the full story?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an incredibly interesting and thought provoking piece! Personally, I am anti-censorship. Censorship of books is a bad thing for many, many reasons. Just one problem with it is that it in many ways validates the very ideas you try to suppress- the second you try to hide something from view, those subversive views become something conspiracy theorists can use to prop up their ideology, because by trying to hide it, it only becomes more visible (of course this can happen either way, but it doesn’t help). I firmly believe that exposing a book for what it is actually works far better than trying to destroy it- in a way, this book’s a good example, because it is clear evidence of racist attitudes to black people. That said I don’t think the solution is to actively promote books like this and encourage people to pay through the nose to buy it! Especially in this case, when it’s not something where there is something to study in depth- eg Mein Kampf would be useful for exposing anti-semitism, as it literally plots out anti-semitic ideology. This doesn’t teach us anything more than “people are racist”- which, like I said, makes it really unnecessary to actively go out and invest in it. Sorry for my rambly thoughts- just a really interesting post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I kept up with this when it was big news. I haven’t read the book but have seen snapshots of it. I think the whole fiasco shows why publishers themselves need to be more diverse. It’s interesting that throughout the book’s publishing process no one thought to question why the book is filled with only smiling slaves. I don’t mind the intent to show slaves taking pride in their work but it would be good to give more info within the story to show how slavery is. And it’s not cool for the author to blame the illustrator who is only interpreting what they read. Still, again, it’s the publisher (editors) who’re supposed to ensure that the illustrations match the story n the author’s intent.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As for pulling the book, I thought that was harsh. I thought it would have been best to include some sort of explanation in later publications of it. And sure there are many books on race n all that but I think we can also make use of books that look at issues of race in new ways because there various perspectives on it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Not being from America I hadn’t heard about this book. Wow, just wow. How could everyone involved get it so horribly wrong?? Why not try to re-edit it to show the real intent of the story instead of just all out deleting it? It would also provide an opportunity for the author to gain back some of her lost credibility.
    Really nice article, I’m looking forward to seeing more posts like this.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dude what! I had no idea this had happened. What year is this book from, exactly?
    And honestly I’m confused too. I’m more uncomfortable with the subject matter than the freedom-of-speech aspect, but I get why recalling the book is problematic.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m so appalled by this. Thanks so much for sharing and bringing this to light. Censorship is not okay. If anything, it’s given them a chance to sweep it under the rug and pretend it’s not a problem. But it is!

    “We have the precious choice of what we pick up to read, and taking away that power to choose is belittling at best, unfair at ok, undemocratic at bad, and totalitarian at worst.” 100% agreed!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I don’t think the words themselves have to suggest that slavery is horrible for the illustrator to know that and illustrate accordingly. The beauty of picture books is that the illustrations often give new meaning or an ironic twist to the page. Or they add context. The words might say “Bear walked into the room” and the picture is a two-page spread of Bear’s friends giving her a surprise birthday party or all the other toys running away in horror from the new “scary” Bear–no words needed to advance the story.

    I think the real problem here is that while the desire to paint slaves as more than simply victims is laudable, that kind of nuance isn’t really something the small children are going to pick up on in a picture book. And the author, illustrator, and publisher were also probably worried about broaching the reality of slavery in a picture book because I suppose a great many parents of small children don’t really want to teach them about slavery at that age. They’re still learning about the world around them and to go “Hey! Back in the day we owned other people and tortured them!” is not what many parents want their children to be thinking about when they’re say five or six Putting the information at the end was probably supposed to give parents the information they needed to broach that topic in their own way in a manner appropriate for their children. But it read more like an afterthought to many people.

    Really I think this type of content would work better in a nonfiction piece or even a novel for older children. I think that in trying to make it a picture book, they oversimplified the situation to make it digestible for a younger audience, and that obviously didn’t work out very well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! Thank you so much for your input! Excellent point about illustrations, I hadn’t considered that, and you are so right! Thank you! I also agree that the audience becomes a really big consideration when dealing with this topic. I think a biography of the life of a slave would be more effective in showing children the reality than a story like this. As you said, nonfiction (ironically, this book was marketed as nonfiction). There are definitely ways to teach kids about it without being graphic or age-inappropriate. This was not the way.


      1. I hadn’t realized it was marketed as nonfiction. I know there are picture books in the nonfiction section, but this seemed more like an artist’s interpretation of a historical person, kind of like you might see a book about Misty Copeland or Fred Astaire in the picture book section. The fact that it was marketed in that way makes it a bit more problematic to me, as it’s suggesting that the book is not so much a statement about slaves being more than victims but rather a sort of “true account” of what happened that day. If it’s in the nonfiction section, that suggests younger kids can take it out and cite it for a school project, for example, but I’m not sure how much of the content is strictly factual. (I haven’t read it–it was pulled so quickly.)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, definitely makes it more problematic; in our class we have also been discussing why certain children’s books end up in the non-fiction section over others, and sometimes it seems very arbitrary. This particular book seemed extremely fictionalized, whereas other books we discussed ended up in fiction when they were true accounts. I think it goes back to the audience again; it’s necessary to teach children facts through story-telling because that’s how they learn, but then where is the line drawn between fiction and non-fiction with children’s books? It’s a really tough call.


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