“American history cannot be understood without slavery” (Ira Berlin, 2).
In “Coming to terms with Slavery,” Ira Berlin shows how slavery became associated with black or dark skin, and how that dark skin accrued all the negative associations of slavery. From there, justifications were manufactured or found to justify keeping a person as property through racial theories of congenital inferiority ascribed to Africans by elites who had an economic and institutional stake in maintaining a system of human bondage. And as Berlin illustrates, these elites were the ones who created, interpreted and molded a system of government to ensure their privilege and liberty while denying it to others.
Because slavery is an unpleasant story, an accusatory story, a shameful story, it is a difficult historical conversation for both black and white people to have. Most white people refuse to acknowledge the accrued benefits of slavery to the nation’s development. Nor do we wish to see “white privilege” in society, another legacy of slavery that associated color with a dehumanized being, because it is unsettling, an unnerving dissonance inducing state of mind that demands an apology, a plea for forgiveness and atonement. Many Americans want to believe that slavery’s affects ended on a certain date, 1863, or 1964 or 2008 for sure. They believe it is ridiculous, deceptive, even race-hustling and excuse-mongering to insist that slavery casts a shadow over the US today.
Some of us who claim European origins can declaim the injustices, including ones that predate African slavery in the Americas, bitterly attributing the misery of our ancestors to a particular people, or country, that we still hold liable today for that suffering. That “ancient history” is still alive, still influences us, still informs our worldview yet we cannot accept that slavery still has an impact today. We look at our immigrant ancestors, attributing their and subsequent generations success to their (undoubted) hard work without admitting that by not being African they automatically had an advantage over people of color. As David Blight writes in “If You Don’t Tell it Like it Was,” modern nation states have “built or imagined” a past designed to strengthen and promote the nation by emphasizing commonalties through disinheriting inconvenient truths (24-5). He goes on to say that you cannot build a better, more just world, by forgetting the past.
I found it interesting to discover that many African-Americans are more reluctant to talk about slavery than white people. I assumed, as a white person, that it is easier for black people because the wrong was patently done to them. The moral high ground belongs to those who were enslaved and their descendants. Perhaps because slavery is such an intense, emotional, disturbing and painful concept for African-Americans many avoid it. I tried to imagine how I would feel if my grandfather’s grandfather had been owned. Would I be angry at white people or my ancestors or both, feel inferior or maybe superior to others, would I want to disassociate myself from my ancestors embarrassed by their servility, shamed and saddened by their condition? Or would I recognize their tenacious struggle to survive and create vibrant communities where they exercised as much agency as the situation allowed. In all, I found my thoughts complex, conflicted and even incoherent. I can only imagine that many African-Americans must experience the gamut of emotions and thoughts about slavery.
In “The Last Great Taboo Subject,” John Michael Vlach’s experience with the Library of Congress illustrates the complexity of an exhibit about slavery. Some African-American staff complained that the display seemed to “celebrate” slavery while other’s projected their own disenchantment with their working conditions onto the images of white overseers driving slaves (62). The Library’s decision to cancel the exhibit also attests to the tensions between institutions of state and their problematic relationship to African-Americans. Perhaps the Library’s administration should have informed staff about the exhibit, and its author’s intentions to highlight the resilience of black people in the face of the evils of slavery, so they understood the exhibit’s objectives.
The crack in the Liberty Bell symbolizes the fault line between the American promise and what many people actually encounter. Maybe the crack is eponymous to what you must ingest in order to write “All men are created equal” while concurrently owning people. I learned in high school that Washington freed his slaves after his death. I didn’t hear about his efforts to chase down runaway slaves, which of course as a slave-owner you would do because of their value, it makes sense in a system where people are property. When visiting Washington’s Mount Vernon home I don’t remember hearing much about slavery just as Joanne Melish tells us was the case at My Old Kentucky Home historical site. Guides were told to refer to ‘servants’ and when a courageous guide lobbied to include information on the lives of slaves, his boss told him not to present an entirely negative view, but to say “something ‘positive’ about slavery” (117). For Melish this represents a “containment strategy,” a form of “denial,’ where slavery is ignored and divorced from sites where it was a central factor of history (115).
In “Southern Comfort Levels,” Marie Tyler-McGraw presents the impediments encountered when the history of marginalized groups clashes with the false narrative of the “Mint Julep” historians who rewrote the history of slavery and the Civil War. Likewise, Dwight Pitcaithley talks about the difficulties of interpretation on Civil War battlefields. How do you give slavery its place at these sites when generations of white Southerners, maybe all Americans, have been raised on lies? And why are some so opposed to even listening to a different version of events? Oral historian Anthony Buckley provides this explanation: “to dispel the ‘myths’ of history is to “attack the people who gain comfort and self-worth from these narratives.” As long as the truth about slavery, and its part in making the nation is denied or ignored there will always be generations of Americans who subscribe to the theory that slavery was a peculiar institution of the past, with no effects in the present.
The examples in the text show that if public historians are honest enough, and in many cases courageous enough, to engage the topic of slavery and discrimination in public spaces, that previously ignored people can find a voice for their story. It also makes the history of such places a more accurate depiction of what occurred and how we got to where we are today.