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Although I recognize the talent and hard work that went into the creation of both A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington, I am alarmed by the distortions of slavery. In both books readers are provided historical data nixed with the myth of the benevolent slave owner.
The historical record paints a much less rosy picture of George Washington as master:
George Washington is reported to have “frequently used harsh punishments against the enslaved population, including whippings and the threat of particularly taxing work assignments. Perhaps most severely, Washington could sell a slave to a buyer in the West Indies, ensuring that the person would never see their family or friends at Mount Vernon again. Washington conducted such sales on several occasions.” http://www.pbs.org/…/shows/jefferson/video/lives.html
When Richmond (the fourteen-year-old son of Hercules) was caught stealing, George Washington had this to say to his farm manager: “I hope he was made an example of”.
Excerpt from: The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House by Jesse Holland.
When it was discovered by the farm manager at Mount Vernon that slaves were using wheat sacks to mend clothes, he proposed purchasing bags made of coarse sacking from Europe, “which a Negro could not mend his cloaths with without a discovery”. http://www.pbs.org/…/shows/jefferson/video/lives.html
The argument will no doubt be made that the book is not about George Washington. If so, the book is incomplete and inaccurate. Further, the depictions of happy slaves looking adoringly at Martha Washington, and the one of George Washington hugging his black cook belie that argument. It is as much about the Washingtons as it is about Hercules.
So what remains hidden in this presentation is that Hercules walked on shifting ground at all times. His position, fame, and freedoms, as well as his physical and emotional health were all dependent upon the will of the master.
By removing the less pleasant realities of his life, the reader is left without a context to grasp slavery or understand why Hercules’ brief triumph was truly remarkable. And by book’s end, we are again left wondering. Why would Hercules want to leave a life of luxury? What made slavery intolerable for a man in his position? What would he achieve by escape? Escape made him a fugitive, not a free man. What then made escape worth the risk?
Once again, I am left confused and dismayed. Concerned that children’s books unintentionally continue to create distortions about slavery, African American history, and this country that a child will have to come to grips with later in life.
These are my thoughts after reading The First Bite.
The first problem with the author’s response is the use of the word respect. Washington may well have respected Hercules’ talent as a chef. He certainly enjoyed it. He did not, however, respect the man. A man he recorded, like he did other holdings, in his log books. To respect the man would have mandated that Washington grant Hercules more than a few extra freedoms. It would have demanded that he grant him the status of human being rather than property. That the author could argue that any slave owner respected his slaves shows a lack of understanding of the institution of slavery.