Dear Scholastic: Slaves Were Not Happy About Being Slaves

Why are we still having this conversation in 2016? 

By Sharon Lynn Pruitt

Slavery was not fun. There shouldn't be a soul left in this country who needs to be reminded of this, but it looks like Scholastic didn't get the memo.

One of the largest publishing companies in the country is getting heat for their decision to publish A Birthday Cake For George Washington. The children's book depicts Washington's slave - I mean, cook - Hercules as he and other slaves - I mean, staff members - bake a cake for their slave master - boss, I mean- George Washington. Reviewers have been blasting Scholastic for their decision to publish a kids book that portrays slaves as happy, singing individuals who are just so darn happy to be singing and baking a cake for good ole George.

Though Scholastic initially stood by the book despite criticism and outrage in numerous reviews, the bad press must have been too much for them. On Sunday, they announced that production of the book would stop immediately. Said Scholastic in a statement, "While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor, we believe 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can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn." 

You think so? It's a book about a group of slaves happily singing and making a cake for their master, as if he's a family friend and not someone who probably sold away their family members like cattle. What could be wrong with that?

Everything. Absolutely everything. Our country has a long history of softening slavery, especially when it comes to what we teach our children. McGraw-Hill made headlines in October when a Texas high school student took a snapshot of his geography textbook that sent the Internet into a frenzy. In the photo that later went viral, a section about immigration referred to African slaves as "workers." As most of us know, there exists a world of difference between the words "worker" and "slave." "Worker" suggests choice, comfort, humanity, while "slave" is an accurate representation of reality at the time: work was not a choice, there was little comfort, and their humanity was denied - and would continue to be denied - for hundreds of years.

The fact that a book like this can be nearly published in 2016 is disturbing. The various sets of eyes at Scholastic that had to sign off on this book -- authors, illustrators, the multiple tiers of editors, readers, and art directors -- none of them thought that maybe they should pump the brakes on this one before it hit the shelves until the press went up in arms. That's truly a troubling thought to settle on for too long. 

We don't respect our past by repainting it into something prettier and easier to consume (but easier for who, is the question). History isn't always easy to face, but the answer isn't to rewrite it - and that should go without saying. Rewriting history is not an option. The only option is truth and education. But I guess A Cake For My Slave Master just didn't have the same ring to it.

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