Hercules and the Birthday Cake for Washington

In the news recently is the recall by Scholastic Publishers of A Birthday Cake for George Washington by author Ramin Ganeshram and illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton which was released on January 5. The story is about Washington’s cook, a slave named Hercules, and his daughter Delia who bake the cake of the title. The book for young readers has been criticized because it depicts slavery in the Washington household as rather benign.
Hercules was an accomplished chef who served the president in Philadelphia and was accorded privileges denied other enslaved workers. A bit of a dandy, he ran a tight ship lording it over his underlings in the kitchen and was able to accrue a considerable amount of money by selling leftovers from the presidential table.
Washington regularly rotated his slaves back to Mount Vernon from Philadelphia because of a Pennsylvania law that allowed them their freedom after six months residence. When Hercules was returned to Mount Vernon early in 1797 and was assigned duties as a laborer, which he must have considered beneath him, he ran away.
George Washington was angered and mystified by his action just as he and Martha never could understand why Oney Judge, a slave who was one of Martha’s personal maids, also ran away in 1796 when she was in Philadelphia. In both cases Washington attempted to recover the slaves, but his efforts failed. See recent posts about Oney here, here, and here.
Although notes in the Birthday Cake book do say that Hercules ran away, that fact and his desire to escape are not dealt with in the story itself, nor are the evils of slavery. These are unfortunate errors in judgment on the part of the author and illustrator who are both African Americans. The Washingtons did not comprehend that being “well treated” is not the same as being free. And readers of the book need to understand that too. Oney said “she did not want to be a slave always.” And when asked whether she regretted her decision to run away replied “No, I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.”

See the article on Hercules in George Washington’s Mount Vernon, also J.L. Bell’s blog post on the subject.


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