In My Words: Owning the Stories of Slaves in America
Newspapers around North Carolina recently featured a guest column by Naeemah Clark, associate professor of communications, who assesses reactions to recent comments by first lady Michelle Obama about the role of slave labor in the construction of the White House.
The following column appeared recently in the Burlington Times-News, the Greensboro News & Record, the Fayetteville Observer and The Greenville (S.C.) News via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not necessarily Elon University.
By Naeemah Clark, firstname.lastname@example.org
During Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, she emotionally talked about her African-American family waking up in a White House that was built by slaves. Her voice broke when she spoke of her beautiful daughters playing on the White House lawn with their dogs. The audience cheered at the imagery she created because she was telling the story of how America can be a reparative nation. A nation where the descendants of slaves, can reach the souls and minds of its citizens to become its first family.
My heart was full of pride and admiration for her and my country. I cried. I watched the speech again. I cried again.
Soon after the first lady walked off stage, social media was abuzz over the statement that America’s house was built by slaves.
Some of the comments that appeared in my Twitter feed ranged from:
“Built by slaves and free men. By saying just slaves she was taking creative license. Just be honest.”
“Weren’t the enslaved paid?”
“The White House wasn’t built ONLY by slaves. I mean, the overseers oversaw them. They were like the supervisors.”
Another commenter claimed that no Republican owned slaves at the time the White House was built, therefore, there could have been no slaves involved.
These conversations found their way to television.
John Gibson used his air time on Fox News to say, “Slaves lived in the area and were employed in building much of the capitol ... What, then, is the purpose of appropriating the construction of the White House to black slave workers, neglecting to mention other workers?”
Ummm — “Employed?”
In response, several news organizations and historians supported Obama’s statement. The White House was built by slaves who worked in quarries and as laborers. Of course, there were others there, including immigrants from European countries. Still, the fact remains that slave labor was used to build the White House and other historic buildings that dot the D.C. map.
For his part, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, who purports to be a scholar of U.S. history, used his expertise to say there were slaves there. And then he added that they were “well-fed and had decent lodgings provided.”
O’Reilly’s assertion, while supporting the first lady’s statement, is indicative of how little slavery is understood in America. To state that the slaves were well taken care of seems to negate the underlying condition of one human being owning another. Edible food and a blanket on a cot does not make the condition of being a possession acceptable. In fact, this ignorance of slavery creates ignorance of how we think about race in America.
A grade-school textbook that teaches that slaves were “workers” who immigrated to America just like the Irish or Italians makes slavery palatable to young kids, but it sends a message that social graces were extended to blacks in the same manner they were to European immigrants.
Perhaps even more insidious, the stories about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson are often told as if they had a romantic love story. They weren’t Fitz and Liv from the hit TV show “Scandal.” They only met because he inherited her. Without discussions of the institutionalized rapes that resulted from sexual interactions between the enslaved and slave owners, the dismissal of black women and emasculation of black men, then and now, cannot be comprehended.
It would be too easy to blame the debate surrounding Obama’s truthful statement as a fault of our history classes. The failing is far more troubling and it goes right to the heartbeat of our country.
To declare that slaves did not build the White House is to declare that the misery of slavery was not a significant part of or contributor to American history. Also, it negates the miracle that millions of black Americans have risen from a legacy of forced labor, rape, physical abuse and denial of basic human dignity to become teachers, doctors, engineers, construction workers and, yes, first ladies.
To expect the first lady to say that slaves built the White House with the help of others takes the power out of the reality of what slavery was. Of course, there were white folks there, but their presence wasn’t as remarkable as the presence of slaves. Any black hand, leg or foot owned by another on that construction site had a meaning different from those of the free men on the same site. That the black body parts were merely vehicles for labor and not human is why Michelle Obama marvels at Sasha and Malia playing with their dog, Bo, in the gardens.
It is here where I find connections with annoyance of others at the Black Lives Matter movement. Chants of “All Lives Matter” would be perfectly fine, if there weren’t consistent evidence that black bodies are treated differently from white bodies. To separate black lives out doesn’t mean that those lives are more important. It means there should be an acknowledgement that black lives are equally important.
Similarly, to think of the white and black laborers at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. as equals is an error.
The reality is that the injustice of slavery is why the marginalized group must be separately acknowledged and lifted into the light. And in the case of Michelle Obama’s speech, those slaves are more special now because they were less than human then.
Naeemah Clark is an associate professor of communications at Elon University.
Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.