How to Teach Your Baby About Slavery

One picture book gets it so wrong – and one gets it righter than it should.

One of my earliest memories is of me throwing a massive tantrum in front of the television. My parents were watching the local news, and they refused to believe me when I insisted it was a re-run.

Somehow my frantic pointing to the burning building on the screen and screams of “I’ve seen this before!” didn’t convince them to change the channel.

I didn’t understand then that the same stories could be discussed on multiple nights, or that some tragedies look an awful lot like others that came before. Now I find that fact impossible to avoid. We’re inundated with yet another horrifying mass shooting followed by political outrage that goes nowhere, and yet another egregious act of race-based police violence followed by widespread denial that there’s even a problem. It really does feel like a re-run, except it’s real.

If I’ve learned one thing from this presidential biography project, it’s that this repetition isn’t new. Race-based violence and mass shootings in America are both part of a pattern of hate and fear that goes back hundreds of years and stems from the greatest evil our nation has ever perpetrated – slavery.

How do I explain that to my kid?

First off, my daughter is just under two years old. We definitely don’t let her watch the news. (I don’t even like my wife seeing commercials for the local news because I swear they’re designed to make her cry.) It’s still our job to shield our baby from the horrors of the world, but that job description is changing. Soon I’ll have to prepare her to cope with those horrors and give her the tools to understand the world and make it better. That won’t be easy, as I’m not even ready to take away her pacifier.

I want my daughter to grow up as an intelligent, kind, socially conscious young woman with an understanding of her white privilege and an appreciation of the freedom people have gained through the ages, and of how close we can still come to losing those freedoms. I want her to know our history and know that history repeats itself, so she can help ensure that it doesn’t have to.

I don’t know the best way to introduce her to the history of slavery, but I’m getting closer. I found one picture
book that does it so wrong it was recalled by its publisher, and one that does a better
job than it has to, which is a start.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington

Addressing slavery in a children’s book can be tricky. Just ask Ramin Ganeshram, whose book A Birthday Cake for George Washington was recalled by the publisher after complaints that it irresponsibly glorified slavery.

The book tells a story about George Washington’s esteemed chef, Hercules, from the perspective of his young daughter Delia. Hercules, a slave, is tasked with baking a birthday cake for George Washington and must improvise when he discovers they’ve run out of sugar. It’s like an episode of Chopped but instead of $10,000, the winner gets to keep being a slave.

This could have been a nice educational book, but it reads like the author ran out of truth and substituted a whole box of problematic. The story revolves around Hercules teaching his daughter Delia how to cook for the president in Philadelphia, but that father-daughter concept is fatally flawed because Hercules wasn’t allowed to take his daughters to Philadelphia with him. They had to stay behind in Mount Vernon while Hercules was brought to Philadelphia for six months at a time. By Pennsylvania law, any slave who lived there more than six consecutive months was free, so Washington rotated his slaves back and forth from Virginia so they would remain his property.

The book is right that Hercules was a highly-revered chef with more privileges than most slaves, but picturing him as part of a happy family cooking together is a complete fabrication that disrespects the real Hercules and his hardships.

I can’t wrap my head around why the author chose to turn Hercules the chef into a baker and chose a fictional birthday cake as the central conceit, since the only significant thing Hercules ever did on George Washington’s birthday was escape. Sent back to Mount Vernon to reset his slave calendar, Hercules was forced to do manual labor. While George Washington celebrated his 65th birthday at the President’s Mansion in Philadelphia, Hercules ran away. He never saw his family again. That doesn’t make the sunny illustrated part of the book, but it’s mentioned in an awkward, tacked-on author’s note.

Spolier Alert: Hercules uses honey instead of sugar.

Defending her book in the Huffington Post, Ganeshram claimed that it was “banned” and “censored” as a result of pressure by, in her words, “an online lynch mob – and I use that word deliberately.” So to be clear, she deliberately compared public outcry against her poorly executed children’s book to the an angry mob savagely hanging someone.

In her defense, she may not know what a lynch mob is, because she doesn’t seem to know the actual meaning of “banned” or “censored” either. Her book was not banned. The publisher, Scholastic, felt that public outcry against the book was valid, and they made the economic decision to recall it because of its “false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves.” That’s not censorship – it’s social responsibility. And capitalism. Sometimes the two overlap.

This was long thought to be a portrait of Hercules by Gilbert Stuart. This no longer seems to be the case.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington fails in its goal to tell the story of Hercules the chef, and in doing so it fails to provide any educational value about the lives of slaves. It actually does a disservice to furthering the conversation about race in America.

In my daughter’s library I found a board book – meant for children so young they can’t be trusted with paper – that somehow does a better job of accurately depicting slaves even though its author never intended to address slavery.

The Story of Thomas Jefferson

I was immediately intrigued by the illustrations in The Story of Thomas Jefferson, written by Patricia A. Pingry and illustrated by Meredith Johnson. At just over 200 words, this board book almost subversively acknowledges our nation’s most heinous institution while achieving its stated intent of introducing Jefferson “to the very young child through the simple words and bright pictures.”

Those bright pictures say it all.

The text covers Jefferson’s greatest hits – writing the Declaration of Independence, building Monticello, becoming president, founding the University of Virginia – and our hero is often pictured standing around, thinking, planning, and envisioning his nation’s future. But in the background of several pictures, doing the actual doing, are slaves.

Slaves are shown chopping down trees, farming, housecleaning, and packing up his collection of thousands of books that their free labor allowed him to purchase and gave him the time to read.

Jefferson’s slaves pack up his 6,500 volume library he sold to Congress.

On a two-page spread with the words “Thomas grew tall – six feet, two inches. He had big feet and hands and wore his hair in a red ponytail,” Jefferson is pictured standing on a hilltop, blueprints in hand, with three slaves working in the background. That couldn’t be unintentional. I had to find out more about how those slaves got there, so I reached out to the illustrator, Meredith Johnson.

Johnson, who has illustrated well over 150 children’s books, graciously responded to my questions. I asked if it was her idea to depict slaves in the background of so many pictures or if the author dictated the illustrations. She said she “can count on one hand the number of times I got ‘direct’ direction from the author” and she was allowed free reign, though the publisher, Ideals, was “very anxious to steer clear of any of the controversy that swirls around Jefferson” regarding Jefferson’s relationship with slavery.

“It was my decision as to how many slaves were represented and where,” Johnson said. “The book is meant to give a simple overview of a very famous Founding Father; no warts, no controversy. But there were slaves at Jefferson’s house, and so they are given a place in the book, as well they should be.”

There were slaves at George Washington’s house too, but they hardly appear in the Ideals board book The Story of George Washington by the same author (but a different illustrator, Stephanie Britt.) Only one of its pages shows slaves, and that’s because the text cries out for it.

This makes me admire Johnson’s approach even more. She understands that “no controversy” does not mean “no truth.” She chose to show the truth in a responsible way appropriate for her audience, because to distort the truth would have been irresponsible.

Even though it does a good job of not ignoring slaves, The Story of Thomas Jefferson is not their story. Slaves appear in the pictures, but they are not given a voice. This book is not a sufficient starting point for the talks I’ll need to have with my daughter.

But when the topic of race and slavery comes up, I’ll be able to pick up The Story of Thomas Jefferson and point out the men and women in the background who were there all along, always a part of our nation’s history, their voices long suppressed. Then I’ll pull out a twenty dollar bill and tell her about Harriet Tubman, another American hero whose story deserves to be told just as much as Thomas Jefferson’s.

The Reservoir of Freedom

When I think my daughter is far too young to learn about slavery and racism, I wonder what it would be like for someone her age in the south in the 1800s, or even the 1960s. Surely she would have a concept of what black skin meant, of what a slave was, of their place. It disgusts me to think that even today, there are children her age – innocent kids full of wonder and love – whose parents are teaching them that another group of people is less worthy of love because of their skin color, or religion, or sexuality.

In a few years my daughter will be the youngest reader at my in-laws’ Passover Seder. That means she’ll be the one asking the four questions about why this night is unlike any other. I didn’t grow up with these traditions from my wife’s family, but I love that this annual story of freedom will always be a part of her life. From early on, she’ll get to know one of her grandfather’s favorite quotes from their Hagaddah: “Freedom is like a reservoir of water that loses its content with time, unless it is continuously replenished with fresh water.”

The lessons of slavery and racism are important to teach because we obviously haven’t learned them all yet. When a major party’s presidential candidate spouts racist, bigoted, misogynistic rhetoric and encourages the support of white supremacists, it’s more important than ever to understand where we came from so we never have to go back there.

I see relatives post things on Facebook in support of Donald Trump’s most racist fear-mongering vomit, and it makes me furious. I want to put them in their place with razor-sharp wit and then reach through the computer and literally shake the hate out of them. I want to hold them underwater in the reservoir of freedom until their lungs fill with acceptance and they agree with me. But I know that won’t work. You can’t fight ignorance and fear with anger, or hate with hate. You can only fight them with education. That starts early, with children’s books. I’m still looking for the right one.

I want my daughter to grow up in a world where that reservoir of freedom is impervious to drought because everyone is constantly working together to replenish it with fresh water. Not sugar. Or honey.

I want her to forge her own path and fight against injustices that aren’t even on my radar now. I want her to take Thomas Jefferson’s words to heart: “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their
barbarous ancestors.”

I don’t want her to think the news is a re-run.





  1. Unknown
    August 10, 2016 / 1:42 pm

    Maybe you should be the one to write that book! Thanks for the post, I enjoyed reading it.

    • Howard Dorre
      September 20, 2016 / 4:29 am

      Thank you for the very kind words!

  2. PBScott
    September 22, 2016 / 8:06 am

    Very well written and a good point of view towards past events and your future conversations with your daughter.I grew up in a town on the west coast of Canada where racism was not tolerated, we all intermingled, intermarried and all was harmonious. I feel the more you talk about Race, the better people get at separating others out from the common herd, it is one of the few things I believe that if we do not talk about it, it will simply go away.However I understand that your talking to your daughter will probably be completely necessary since race seems to fill the US news these days. Please excuse my crudeness but this is what I tell my son…it is true.People that come from darker countries have dark skin, dark eyes and dark hair to protect them from the sun, in colder nations where the sun is less harsh they have lighter skin eyes and hair, this allows them to get maximum benefit from the sun. People that judge others based on these easily seen difference are not intelligent enough to be listened to.

    • Howard Dorre
      May 2, 2017 / 7:56 pm

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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