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 Scholastic repealed its publication.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.