More Controversy About Slavery Representation in Books

Last fall, McGraw-Hill was under fire for misrepresenting the history of slavery in the United States. Now, Scholastic publishing company is facing similar criticism about a children's book.  Scholastic book

A Birthday Cake for George Washington focuses on Hercules, the former president's chef, and includes pictures of his slaves smiling. The VP of Scholastic Trade Publishing defended the book in a blog post, excerpted here:

"The topic of slavery is one that must be handled with the utmost care, especially in the form of visual depictions, historical references, dialogue, and characterizations in books for young readers. In A Birthday Cake for George Washington the lives of enslaved people ― and the complex inequities of their bondage ― play a key role in the narrative. Through carefully curated research, A Birthday Cake for George Washington presents an important slice of American history. It is based on the true story of Hercules, the president's cook. Hercules was one of over 300 African Americans enslaved by George and Martha Washington. Even though he was a slave, everyone knew and admired Hercules ― especially the president!"

A petition called the book a "vile exemplification of the distortion of history" and got 928 signatures as of this writing. It was enough. 

Scholastic has since posted a "New Statement" to announce the end of book distribution and to offer refunds for purchased books. The company clearly stands by those who made the book possible, but the management team now recognizes that, "without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn." 

Discussion Starters: 

  • Read the first blog post defending the book. What are the strongest and weakest arguments? 
  • Did Scholastic make the right decision in pulling the book?