Yesterday, I explained why no one says nice things about Hitler. I wasn’t finished mining awkward topics for conversation, so today I’m going to talk about why no one says nice things about slavery. Turns out, people are blackwashing slavery for the same reason people are blackwashing Hitler: so they can excuse themselves from any responsibility for democratic evils.
“Responsibility?” you might say. “I’m not responsible for slavery. My grandfather wasn’t even alive then.” Yes, well I’m not talking about responsibility for the past. I’m talking about responsibility for the present and future. It is my firm conviction that blackwashing slavery actually cultivates a society that is more prone to repeat the errors of slavery.
But before we get into that, what does it look like to blackwash slavery? How could one make the American system of slavery look any worse than it actually was? Wasn’t slavery wholly and completely bad?
Try explaining the pragmatic rationality or (perhaps misguided) compassion of the American slave system to a stranger sometime. See how far you get. It is challenging to talk about why slavery existed, and why seemingly decent people didn’t do more to dismantle it.
It’s easier to believe there just weren’t any decent slave owners right? Or that the South was filled to the brim with racists. Surely no black man was happier as a slave in the South than he was as a freeman in the North?
Recently, after a public outcry, Scholastic pulled a children’s book that its critics claimed was “whitewashing” the slave experience. It was a book about George Washington’s slave chef, Hercules, who apparently enjoyed his job and his relationship with his slave master too much for most people’s comfort. The book, George Washington’s Birthday Cake, told the story of a happy house slave who was respected and loved by his master. Not cool, says everyone:
“While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor, we believe that, without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn,” Scholastic said in a Jan. 17 statement.
In an ironic twist, much of the “blackwashing” of slavery actually obscures, distorts, or ignores firsthand narratives—depriving the slaves even now of the voice and self-determination they yearned for in life. For instance, in the critically-acclaimed movie, Twelve Years a Slave, the screenwriters chose to change crucial elements of Solomon Northup’s firsthand slave narrative because they apparently bristled at Northup’s sometimes rosy view of his own experience, especially his positive representation of William Ford, one of his masters:
[Twelve Years a Slave] paints William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) as a hypocrite, contradicting his Christian sermons by overlaying them with his slave Eliza’s agonizing screams. In his memoir, Solomon Northup offers the utmost words of kindness for his former master, stating that “there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford.” Northup blames William Ford’s circumstances and upbringing for his involvement in slavery, “The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery.” He calls the real William Ford a “model master,” going on to write, “Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness.”
The reality is that, like pretty much everything in the human experience, slavery was a mixed bag. According to slave narratives and first hand accounts (which have been cherry-picked, marginalized, and ignored for years by the very people who claim to fight for civil rights), many slaves—perhaps the vast majority—suffered as much, if not more, prejudice and malice as free men in the North as they had ever experienced in the South as slaves.
Aside from that, slavery was economically expedient for the whole country. It is very likely that the North started squawking about slavery officially only when the North was no longer the primary beneficiary of slave-produced goods and believed that making slavery an issue might keep Great Britain out of the war. But the North was completely complicit in the evils of slavery from the beginning, even if no one in the North ever held the whip in his own hand. The abolitionist preaching against slavery in his cotton suit still shared in its spoils.
Tomorrow, I’ll explain the non-intuitive reality that blackwashing makes it far easier, not harder, for a society to commit democratic evils. It may be difficult, but we must avoid whitewashing and blackwashing history if we are to be a free and just society.