Happy Slaves and Good Masters: As a Black Mother I am Troubled at How American Slavery is Portrayed in Children’s Lit

Just weeks before Black History Month a major publisher, Scholastic Inc. released, and just 12 days later removed a children’s book called, A Birthday Cake For George Washington.


The book was swiftly met with protest from parents and teachers.  Most of the critique had to do with the fictional imagery of ‘happy slaves.’   The illustrations present a jubilant slave Hercules along with his daughter Delia, who according to the authors note, “would have been roughly twelve years old at the time of this story, around 1796, [Delia] does not seem to have ever worked at the President’s House in Philadelphia.”  The book goes on to portray Hercules and his daughter as happy about baking a cake for their slave master.  It wasn’t until people took to social media and complained with petitions and the hashtag #SlaveryWithASmile that Scholastic took note and withdrew the book.

Scholastic isn’t the only publishing house pushing the narrative of happy slaves.  Last year the book A Fine Dessert celebrated a dessert called Blackberry Fool.  This book displayed enslaved Africans picking berries with a smile, beating whip cream, joyfully serving masters and hiding in the closet afterwards to lick the bowl. The main theme of  story is the dessert, however the way slavery is depicted has drawn a lot of attention.


The author and illustrator alleged that the book would help children to discuss slavery, but eventually apologized and donated money to the We Need Diverse Books campaign.  The illustrator however defended her work saying that she “thought hard about the smiles” and describes why each particular illustration depicts smiling slaves.


When asked in the comments if she ran her work by people of color during the process of illustrating, she said;

“I agree, in principle, that it’s important to research the communities we depict through illustration. I think illustrating historical subjects is slightly different. I did not explore “what the black community would want” because I’m not even sure how I would go about that. I imagine thinking individuals of color would have a variety of nuanced responses.”

In the aftermath of A Birthday Cake For George Washington, several websites have published list of “honest” books about slavery. Henry’s Freedom Box is on most of these lists and tells the true story of a man who mailed himself in order to escape slavery.  While this book is not saturated with images of smiling enslaved Africans, there is a line in the book that is troublesome.  In the beginning of the book it says that Henry’s master had been “good” to Henry and his family.  What is problematic is that children are led to believe that a slave master can be good. How can you be good to a family while owning owning them? Does the absence of a whip and presence in the house make a good master?  Children might begin to think, ‘If masters were good, was slavery all that bad?  Maybe owning another person is not all that bad if a good person can do it.’


Julian Long, an actor who has worked with Scholastic articulates the problems with publishing #SlavesWithASmile

What you do when you publish an unbalanced, unrealistic, slanted portrayal of the slave/master dynamic (because relationship is too generous a word) is NORMALIZE THE NARRATIVE of white supremacy and Black subjugation. You reinforce the misconception that “slavery wasn’t so bad” and that it “helped Black people in a lot of ways.” You proliferate the horrific notion that slaves and masters had an “understanding” build on respect, kindness and mutual admiration. By publishing this rose-colored retrospective, you suggest that relationships of today might exist similarly, with one race having utter dominion over another and all parties being not only content within such a structure but happy. Gleefully eager to serve. To reinforce these inhumane ideas is an act that precipitates violence. You help form a culture wherein white children can comfortably regard Black children as generally inferior and only a few exceptional ones as deserving basic humanity. You help form a culture where Black children are expected to accept that an exceptional Black man enjoying ALMOST but not quite the same rights and liberties as any average white man is a fair and good. You’ve created a narrative that implies that being the highest slave of the highest order of slavery is an exceptional, and laudable position, and that in this space of servitude, your earned privilege is to rule over others less fortunate than yourself. These are the foundations of violent societies rooted in injustice and inequality.

Moms, have you come across a children’s book about slavery that you approve of?  How do you feel slavery should be presented in children’s literature?  Please share in the comments.