Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Chauncey DeVega says: Slaves Helped to Build the White House....What a Surprise! or Obvious Discovery, Non-News Story of the Week

Insert drum roll...CNN has discovered that the White House was built by slaves.

An excerpt of the story follows:

Slaves helped build White House, U.S. Capitol

-- In January, President-elect Barack Obama and his family will make history, becoming the first African-American first family to move into the White House -- a house with a history of slavery. In fact, the legacy of American presidents owning slaves goes all the way back to George Washington.

Twelve American presidents owned slaves and eight of them, starting with Washington, owned slaves while they lived in the White House. Almost from the very start, slaves were a common sight in the executive mansion. A list of construction workers building the White House in 1795 includes five slaves - named Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel -- all put to work as carpenters. Other slaves worked as masons in the government quarries, cutting the stone for early government buildings, including the White House and U.S. Capitol. According to records kept by the White House Historical Association, slaves often worked seven days a week -- even in the hot and humid Washington summers...

The story continues here.


I love these "discoveries" about America's long history and love affair with racism and white supremacy. The fact of history in the U.S. (and globally) was that slavery and freedom existed in a dualistic relationship. In many ways the "problem" of the White citizen was that freedom was treated as a finite and limited good, one that had to be protected as the exclusive province of white, propertied men. To extend freedom to all, was in the minds of the white rabble, to somehow diminish and tarnish it. Free labor was distinguished from "slave" labor. Freedman were distinguished from their enslaved brothers and sisters. Citizenship by law, letter, and spirit was exclusive rather than inclusive. In reflecting on these realities, the struggle to improve democracy cannot be simplified as one merely to make America true to her creed, because exclusion was always at the heart of what was in many ways a radically democratic experiment. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that historically, the real struggle has been to take the seeds of what is a radically democratic potential, and to force America to live up to it.

As folks smarter than me have said, the United States was, and in many ways remains, a herrenvolk republic. At the risk of overstatement, with the potential for a new racial maturity as offered by Barack Obama's election, perhaps we can face this truth head-on and struggle to transcend it.

Ultimately, CNN's" discovery" of slavery in the heart of the republic (and trust there will be many more "discoveries" to come in these next four years--for example, see this wonderful radio program on the largest recorded mass slave escape in the U.S.) is an example of one of the real benefits and windfalls of Obama's election to the presidency. Perhaps, if we are lucky, Americans will take the moment of Obama's presidency to have a real dialogue about race and its meaning in American life. If we are really fortunate, this conversation will go beyond the tired tropes of white liberal guilt, feigned colorblindness, white racial resentment, benign neglect, black anger, black denial, and black rage. In total, what are a set of feelings which speak to a shared sense of reasonable frustration at the intractability of America's "race problem."

Notice, I am not suggesting that these feelings are illegitimate. Rather, I am suggesting that these frameworks have created a tired and moribund discourse surrounding the changing same that is race in America. And in an increasingly "diverse" present, Americans are being forced to face an increasingly complex racial terrain as we move beyond the black and white binary. Moreover, as the future creeps towards us, the Civil Rights, Generation X, Generation Y, and the Hip Hop Generation will have to come to terms with the rise of a generation to be known as the "Obama Kids," that cohort which will have grown up in a world where they have never known an America without a Black president. The worldview of the Obama Kids, and how they understand race as a social force and lived reality will (rightly or wrongly) be radically different from those generations which preceded them.

This discovery of black humanity and personhood in the literal and symbolic heart of American democracy has prompted me to think about about those brothers and sisters, those "troublemakers" who, often maligned as inconvenient and outside the mainstream, shared their "radical" histories of America through books, pamphlets, and speeches with whoever would listen. In Harlem, at small bookstores and cooperatives in Los Angeles and Chicago, these Third World Presses and Afrocentric scholars (folks like Ivan Van Sertima; Dr. Ben; Na'im Akbar; Haki Madhubuti; Dr. Diop; and Ron Karenga, etc.) were often dismissed as quacks or intellectual lightweights by scholars and the general public--black, white, and brown alike.

Folks didn't want to hear about America before the Pilgrims. Some turned their noses up at the thought of Africans in the New World before Columbus. Others, perhaps ashamed at the long history of inter-racial intimacy between slave and free, between black and white, bristled at the thought of American icons and presidents being linked by blood to their human chattel. Who would want to talk about the powerfully symbolic historical irony that slaves were sold at the foot of Wall Street?--human property representing a vast investment being auctioned off at what would eventually become the heart of America's financial empire. Why would anyone in this day an age fight to preserve a recently discovered mass burial site of 20,ooo slaves in the heart of New York, the then slave capital of the North? To the dismissive, those radical historians and activists are just anachronisms, out of touch with America of the present.

And you know? I must wonder with CNN's belated discovery of Black humanity, both free and bonded, in the White House and Washington D.C., if these radical historians will get a long overdue apology? Who knows? maybe they will even get an invitation to the White House. If they don't get that long overdue invitation, at least they can rest well knowing that knowledge is indeed power, and that their history may become our future.


Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

"...the United States was, and in many ways remains, a herrenvolk republic."

I had to look up that word. From the idea that people from the Germanic and Nordic areas are the master race.

Well, we sure saw plenty folks express white supremacy during the election. Dealing with that was the easy part. Obama straightening out the mess the GOP and Bush left will be much more difficult. Should he succeed, maybe we can all just be people. That would be nice.

Anonymous said...

None of this is new information. It is not suddenly more important today than it was 100 years ago. If Obama is going to do this country any good at all people are going to have to stop inflating basic, common historical truths into cheap irony. It denigrates the progress that has been made and the proof that the racism of the past is dead.

Dusty Finkle said...

That's what I'm saying, why is this so important CNN? It feels gross to highlight such a history at this time, I don't find it relevant. This blog post was way more interesting. Nice blog.

All-Mi-T [Thought Crime] Rawdawgbuffalo said...

News or history .. lol what is the world coming to - media has dumbed u sdown

Mr. Six said...

Twelve American presidents owned slaves and eight of them, starting with Washington, owned slaves while they lived in the White House.

If you go look at the article now, you'll see that it's been corrected to remove the statement that Washington lived in the White House. It now reads, "Twelve American presidents owned slaves and eight of them, starting with Washington, owned slaves while in office."

The error, however, has something to say about this issue. I think it a fair guess that the author simply assumed that Washington lived in the White House because presidents have always lived in the White House. It's just something that we, as Americans, know about our history. It's also completely wrong.

It would be great if this post were right, and Obama's presidency forces further "discoveries" about the country's history of race relations and, as a consequence, a more vital dialog about current race relations. As a first step, sadly, we'll all probably have to un-learn some only tangentially related things about American history that we know to be true and that are also completely incorrect.

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

@Trill-herrenvolk is one of my favorite words btw. would we all just want to be people? and can we find a space where our diversity and difference is valued and seen as a good not as a negative? Maybe the late (great) Iris Young's idea of a just polity where difference is embraced?

@Anonymous-the racism of the past may be dead so to speak, but racism continues to evolve. That is why it is one of the greatest "inventions" of all time!

@Dusty-thanks! I wonder when CNN will do a whole series on Obama's music collection and how "black" and "different" it is from previous presidents? hmmm...maybe we will have to do that one!

@torrance--weren't we always this stupid? maybe it is a matter of degrees?

@mr. six-thanks for checking in and we hope to see you again. you are so right about our shared misconceptions of history. and both sides are guilty of this. for example, i love how folks love to bring out how black Americans fought in the Revolutionary War...but they forget that more blacks fought for the British than the colonies. Manumission and freedom are pretty good reasons to side with the Brits in my opinion.

Chauncey D

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

And I forgot my favorite part of the article where at the end the author notes that the slaves worked, "even in the hot and humid Washington summers..."

Do folks think that slaves got days off for the heat? Maybe there was a Union or workman's comp too?

The naiveness held by many Americans about a system which consumed human bodies by the tens of millions as fuel is really shocking.


The Author said...

that last sentence surprised me too...come on?

i think America continues to have nostalgia for the past, especially in regards to the slave era; which to me can be visually seen in popular culture. Even as we progress to a society that celebrates “multiculturalism” and “diversity,” racist ideologies are still intact, presenting itself as recognition of racial and cultural difference - acknowledging otherness.

I would love to watch these writers at their desk, racking their braisn to for ideas on "news".....pointless.