Monday, February 16, 2009

Whitewashing Slavery

from The News Observer

I've been telling friends around town, and those in Miami and California and other places, about my blog. Most have been supportive. But some, mostly here in Smallville, were a bit shocked that I, a white.....a pale white man--would write about Black history. And they remain confused even when I tell them about the man in the bank who didn't get Black History Month.

Everyone I've talked to says they learned all there is about Black history in school.

Then I came across this story, and I realized they haven't learned about Black history because it's being untaught, whitewashed, at our historical.

There's a museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Joel Lane Museum House. Apparently it was owned by a very wealthy, prominent Raleigh family who owned some 6,000 acres.

Oh yeah, they owned slaves, too; slaves who cooked and cleaned and worked in their fields, but the museum doesn't seem inclined to mention them.

The folks who run the Joel Lane House Museum are, quote, "uncomfortable talking about the practices that allowed wealthy owners to prosper."

Imagine how the slaves must felt.

But if you're uncomfortable talking about the slaves who were bought and sold like farm goods, who worked in the fields from sun-up til sun-down all day, every day, all year, the slaves who lived in squalor so you could live in splendor, the slaves who fed your children and washed your sheets and tucked you in at night, by all means, leave them out of the story.

It's not like they were people, anyway.

And, apparently, this isn't a new thing. Apparently at many North Carolina plantations the talk of slaves and what they did and how they lived, is put aside for discussions on "architecture, furnishings and gardens," you know, important stuff.

This here's my favorite quote, from a woman named Belle Lang, who works at the Joel House Museum. She says, "It's a hard thing to talk about, because there's very little good you can say about it....It's just awkward. It's such a black period in our history."

Very little good you can say about it? Really Belle, because I thought slavery was great.

Capturing people in their own countries and piling them up in boats like living cargo, transporting them across the seas to be sold as household appliances and farm implements, to be beaten and sold and raped and treated like shit.

There isn't anything good to talk about?

But, as you say Belle, and I'll forgive your pun, it was a "black period" in history.

And, I love this one, too: there are some of these plantation tours that present the image of the "happy slaves cared for by benevolent masters." At one such plantation, Darshana Hall Plantation, they are telling story of lovely slave-owners hiring doctors to tend to their slaves, and even giving them a pond so they can fish!

Slavery has been Disney-fied in North Carolina.

The costumes! The music! the chains!

Hiring a doctor to tend to the slaves did not benefit the slaves, it benefited the owners. The same way you hire a veterinarian to check your horses and cows so you can make your money. Slaves were treated far worse than farm animals.

Meredith Hall, who owns Darshana, believes the story of slavery is important, but doesn't think all owners were cruel: "I think that there's a real misconception of slavery; it was a relative thing....This family tried to treat people well. They kept the families together. ... They had a pretty good reputation with regard to slavery."

Good reputation regarding the imprisoning of people to do your labor for pennies, to serve as concubines for pennies, to be bought and sold. Good reputation my ass.

Now, not all these tourist plantations are whitewashing slavery.

The Stagville Plantation, near Durham, saw a 100% increase in visitors from 2007 to 2008. But they make the story of slavery a major portion of the tour and of the discussion of plantation life in the Old South. Almost half the visitors to Stagsville are black, and "[o]ne group came from Senegal to see where their ancestors were taken."

Can you imagine that same group going to the Joel Lane House, or Darshana, and discovering that, according to guides and guidebooks, slavery didn't exist at the plantation, or, if it did, all were happy campers, loving a life in captivity where you weren't allowed education--lest you get too smart for your britches--and weren't allowed to vote, speak, think, o feel anything the master didn't want you to think or feel?

History is cyclical. Go back and look, and you'll see the same things happening over and over and over again, because we didn't learn from the mistakes. And if we continue to whitewash slavery, then the knowledge of it, the horrors of it, will disappear.

All the easier to bring it back.
That picture of the house up there is Stagville Plantation, which is where I suggest you visit if want a true history lesson.


Berry Blog said...

Good post Bob.that 100% increase in visitors might be from 10 people to 20- who knows with percentages?
In my mind there can be no benevolent slavery- the bottom line is No choice about one's own life" and "belonging" to someone else.
I felt the same way about indentured servants tricked into many times their time of service by being owned by the company store, as it were."well yes, your seven years is up, but you are into us for a lot of borrowed moneys as well."This goes back to biblical times where it seemed to be all right as well.
Anyone whose body and/or life is owned by another is a slave. this is what infuriates me about relgious groups who would enslave me to their beliefs through the law.

Bob said...

I agree completely, Charlies, and, according to the article, the number of visitors rose from 6,000 a year to 13,000 a year!

Joy said...

Wonderful post! In Germany it's illegal to be a Holocaust denier. (I heard that on NPR and believe I heard correctly. Did I?) Maybe we need something like that here about slavery and treatment of the American Indians.