Slavery’s Heritage in Public

On the grounds at Middleton Place.
On the grounds at Middleton Place.

A few years ago, when visiting Middleton Place, an old plantation near Charleston, SC that is now a tourist attraction, I noted that there was more emphasis on the role of the slaves on the plantation than there had been when first I was there in 1990. “Good,” I thought, “but this is going to lead to trouble.” Two years ago, on a visit to Mount Vernon, I saw that it, too, was inching toward a greater inclusion of slavery in its presentations and exhibits.

White Americans, too often, turn their eyes away from the residue of slavery. They have for generations. I remember a story I heard, probably apocryphal but still making a valid point, of a group wanting to establish a theme park in Stone Mountain, GA (where there already is a huge monument to Confederate generals on the side of the mountain). They created a mock-up of the park and took it to the town’s mayor, who was black (not surprising, in that predominately African American area). They proudly pointed out what the park would include then sat back, awaiting his applause and approval.

“Look at me,” he said, after studying their presentation, “and then look at this. Then tell me what’s missing.”

The delegation looked back and forth, then back with confused expressions.

“What’s missing?” they asked.

“Slaves,” he responded, “black people like me. The folk who built the plantations and whose work sustained them.”

The point is, you can’t whitewash the artifacts of the slave economy, pretending that the beauty and magnificence didn’t come without cost—without a cost that most of us would, or should, say was much too high, the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of human beings.

The remains of the riches of colonial, federal and antebellum America are wonderful to look at. But we should never see them without a attempting to gain a real understanding of what they cost in terms of human suffering and degradation.

Yet this is a cost we have been burying for generations. And one whose exposure is dismissed by too many white Americans today. They say that attention drawn to slavery is “political.” But it was their own politics that has caused the truth of the basis of so much American wealth to be hidden for so long.

Three recent articles in The Washington Post along with the 1619 Project of The New York Times are calling attention to the reactions of white Americans to insistence on attention to this very real and major part of America and its history. In August 2019, Joe Heim wrote an article for the Post, “Teaching America’s Truth,” that provides a background to today’s lack of understanding of the reality and impact of slavery, focusing on a Southern Poverty Law Center publication, Teaching Hard History, by Kate Shuster. Hannah Knowles’ early September piece, “As Plantations Talk More Honestly About Slavery, Some Visitors Are Pushing Back,” confirms my own suspicions about reactions to the new and needed emphasis of the role of slaves at places like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. She quotes a visitor to McLeod, another Charleston-area plantation, as saying that “she ‘didn’t come to hear a lecture on how the white people treated slaves.’”

That person’s emotions notwithstanding, it would be dishonest to not emphasize the role of enslaved people in American history at such sites (hell, anywhere in the country) and how their treatment has changed the country. It is “political” to exclude them, not to include them.

The third essay, by conservative and evangelical Post op-ed columnist Michael Gerson, “Conservatives’ Reaction to the ‘1619 Project’ Is Disappointing—and Instructive,” published a day after Knowles’ article, ties all of this together. Gerson writes:

Americans are required to have ambiguous feelings about many of the country’s Founders precisely because of the moral ideals the Founders engraved in American life. The height of their ambitions is also the measure of their hypocrisy. It should unsettle us that the author of the Declaration of Independence built a way of life entirely dependent on human bondage.

It should unsettle us, too, that we have tried to expunge slavery from our history. From trying to claim that the Civil War had causes other than slavery, from the expunging of Thomas Paine (who was anti-slavery) from lists of the heroes of our independence, from claims that other groups (indentured servants and the Scots-Irish Borders of some of my own heritage—among others) had it bad, too, white Americans have long tried to concoct a fake history, one that jibes with their politics and senses of self. And that lets them off the slavery (and racism) hook.

That they are wrong, and are threatened by pushback against their cherished beliefs, is, of course, part of what Donald Trump preys upon. That they cannot admit they are wrong is one of the reasons he is president.

I don’t know how to convince such people of their errors, but putting forth the reality of slavery in public places retained from the era of slavery, like the removal of Confederate memorials from public spaces, certainly is a needed part of the attempt at correction.

It certainly isn’t “politics.”

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