On White Houses and the Slaves Who Built Them

Bill O’Reilly fancies himself a historian. That’s fine. Plenty of guys at your Wednesday softball game think they could have played for the Yankees if things had fallen just a bit differently. It’s of little account that the actual Yankees understand them to be clowns– especially the ones who can buy themselves into spring training experiences.

So when O’Reilly starts lecturing about the ratio of slaves to free men in the workforce of the White House, speculates upon their enviable diets, and announces the quiz that a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law who later became a dean at the University of Chicago will be obliged to pass, it is best to roll your eyes and go about your day.

What should concern you, however, is today’s doubling-down on his comments (complete with the usual suggestions that he is the victim, smeared by “liberals” who “want to see [him] dead . . . “literally dead”). Not only is this yet another signpost in the dangerous new phase in public education that excoriates scholars and experts for correcting the errors of people who haven’t spent giant chunks of their lives studying the things they are spouting off about (like, say, someone who knows that one of the few accounts of the construction of the White House comes from Abigail Adams, who laments that the slaves working there looked “half fed, and destitute of cloathing”), but it is also an insight into a resurgence of the socio-politics of selective remembrance and mythic white-washing– things that have plagued America from its inception, and that today threaten to tear the nation down into a pit of willful ignorance where what a citizen feels is more important than what the truth bears out, to the point where a person’s patriotism can roughly be equated to their capacity to ignore everything in the nation’s history that does not illuminate its greatness.

Nearly all of the 311 chapters of An American Song extol the greatness of my country and my countrymen. It is right that this is the case. America is a wondrous place. Its people are by and large good, honest, and benevolent, and their diverse backgrounds and varied lives are the reason why a book like this is even possible. And the communities– both local and national– that they have organized are worthy of celebration. As anyone who reads the book will quickly understand, I am in love with America, and would happily fight the man who would dare suggest that that love is misplaced.

But as in all love affairs, there are times to recognize that my beloved is not without her flaws.

American South (SLR) 541

In the 90th chapter (titled “I Saw Cotton and I Saw Black, Tall White Mansions and Little Shacks,” from the famous song, “Southern Man,” by Neil Young), I relate an argument I had near dusk with a fellow visitor at Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana, where the plantation house is a massive Italianate mansion nicknamed “The White Castle” (pictured above). In it I lost my anger (a stupid thing to do even if my emotions were raised) at the man’s insistence that slaves did not build the house, but rather sugar. “Sugar built this,” he told me. “Tha’ stuff you use every day. There was sugar h’re before there were slaves. I ain’t no lover of slavery, but that’s just who ended up workin’ the fields. These plantation owners were rich before them—how else did they have the money to buy slaves?”

Notice that just as O’Reilly did today, the man declared his hatred for slavery. Of course he did! Few in America today would dare suggest that slavery was a good thing. The problem is, for a large portion of the American public, declaring one’s hatred for slavery has long-since become the end of any argument about the institution. All an American has to say is that he or she abhors the idea of slavery, and poof! all the nasty little consequences of America’s great stain go away. Continued segregation and social inequality? Gone! Companies and, yes, even us private individuals who owe a portion of our fortunes and privilege to the economic system of antebellum days? Excused! Preconceptions about a race that statistics don’t bear out? That’s a separate issue! Political movements demanding fair treatment? “We” freed you, what else do you want?

A lot of people today like to attribute such reckonings to “white guilt.” I could hold a 14 week seminar on plantation mythology to explain why this is a giant cop-out, but what it comes to is this:

Of course I feel a sense of guilt. It’s just that I acknowledge it. You do, too. And unless you reconcile it in the way I do, you are probably doing your best trying to minimize the effects of slavery– and Jim Crow and segregation and all that succeeded these things– on the nation that you too love.

I understand the impulse. The whole truth of slavery in America is too awful to contemplate if you hope to enjoy your day. So even if you do acknowledge its horrors, for your own happiness it is best to put it in some dark recess of your mind. Trust me, I’m there with you. And if I could stop thinking about it, I would.

The problem is that as a white man in America, I have been burdened with having to live in a country where there is a racial divide precisely because the privileged refuse to acknowledge the full depth of the history that has caused such a rift. It is not akin to the burden of those who continue to suffer because of the institution’s lasting effects. But selfishly, I want to live in this post-racial world that so many like O’Reilly talk about. And unlike those people, I know that the only way to get there is to acknowledge the real problems that arose from the realities of slavery and festered because of the real consequences of people who prefer to say things like “the slaves on this plantation were well treated” and “some slaves must have loved their masters” and “a lot of slaves had a better life than poor whites” and “sugar built this house,” and it is ever-aggravated by romantic dreams about the flush times when people of elegance and grace lived in gorgeous mansions with senses of personal freedom since stripped. O’Reilly is just transferring this to a national pathos. Why should he have to reckon with a national symbol befouled by that nation’s great sin, he feels? What matter if Washington and Jefferson owned (and in the latter instance, raped) slaves? What purpose is there in acknowledging that the nation’s original charter– in language that has been amended, but not excised, in the document he claims to hold most dear– protected the slave trade and taxed said importation of persons, and guaranteed that escaped slaves be returned to their masters? These are things that people who don’t love their country think are meaningful.

You may think I find enjoyment in admonishing a blowhard like O’Reilly. I don’t. I would have preferred to write my first extended blog post on how gorgeous Zion was, or how welcomed I felt in Galax, Virginia, or in general how traveling the country constituted some of the finest moments of my life. And more than that, I would prefer that we have an America where his perspective on this matter was not broadcast to millions of people who duly nodded their approval that he stood up to the race-baiting black woman who dared to note the historical moment of a black family living in the White House while a citizen who 100 years ago wouldn’t have been allowed to vote was being nominated to assume the office in its west wing. But we don’t, and so I couldn’t.

There’s no reset button to history. It continues on and on and on, apathetic to our wants and needs, each day manifest in the next despite our narrow conceits of exceptionalism. The only way to wrestle with it is to look at it head-on, bear witness to its awful, sickening lesions, and mend the scars the old ones left behind.

Sure, others built it, too, and billions have built into it all of the best things it has come to represent. But slaves built the White House, Bill. And they weren’t well-treated. Because they were slaves.

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