A Teachable Moment from the DNC

In her speech to the Democratic National Convention, First Lady Michelle Obama was speaking of the progress this nation has made, and in the process said, “That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.”

You can see it here:

So what happened? Predictably, those with low intelligence and high racism at first denied the White House was built by slaves. Confronted with a mountain of evidence showing it was indeed built with slave labor [see here, here, here, and here], they had to take a different tack. The more delusional of them claimed it was “Irish slaves” who built the White House. You can’t make this stuff up. That was shot down as well [see here].

Bill O’Reilly, a commentator on Fox News who fancies himself to be a historian [insert laugh track here], then weighed in for what he called “fact checking” the First Lady. He claimed those slaves who worked at the White House “were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”

You can see his comments here:

O’Reilly has rightly been lambasted by historians. Kevin Levin weighs in here. Glenn David Brasher comments here. Professor Ed Ayers appears in a Time Magazine online article here, along with comments from Caleb McDaniel. Professors Ayers and McDaniel connect O’Reilly’s comments with the proslavery apologia that appeared from Antebellum times all the way through the present:

“As Edward L. Ayers, President Emeritus of the University of Richmond, explains to TIME, the idea that people in slavery in America were well-fed and cared for is one of the oldest rationalizations of the nation’s history of slavery. To understand how it came to be, Ayers says, look back to the 1830s, ‘a pivotal moment for American slavery.’ At that moment in time, it began to seem possible that slavery might be on its way out: Nat Turner’s Rebellionin 1831 scared slaveholders, Virginia considered freeing slaves in the state and radical abolitionists, who wanted to end slavery immediately, began toattract more national attention. At the same time, however, the economics of slavery were changing: with the spread of the cotton gin, the main cash crop associated with slavery became many times more valuable to plantation owners, which meant that the slaves who did the labor were more valuable too. Those who benefited from the system had all the more reason to seek its continuation, and all the more reason to worry that wouldn’t happen. So the people who wanted to keep slavery around had to figure out a way to defend it as a positive good, especially against those who had moral, not economic, arguments. One defense was religious, pointing out that being enslaved had introduced people to Christianity. The other main defense was that American slaves were better off, in terms of living conditions, than they would have been in Africa or in another slave society. The idea was exemplified by people like Thomas R. Dew, who wrote in 1832 that ‘A merrier being does not exist on the face of the globe, than the negro slave of the United States’ and that ‘the slaves of a good master’ were ‘accustomed to look up to him as their supporter, director and defender.’ (Even in his own time, Dew’s arguments were fiercely disputed.)

” ‘When the pro-slavery defense crystallized,’ Ayers says, ‘the material welfare of the enslaved people in the United States was always held up as the example of its benign nature.’ That so-called welfare wasn’t the defense that slavery’s boosters thought it was. For example, if slaves in the U.S. lived longer than slaves in other places, that wasn’t a sign that slavery was a benevolent institution. It was a sign that the economics of cotton were such that, as Ayers puts it, ‘it wasn’t worth working someone to death.’ And, as historian Caleb McDaniel pointed out on Wednesday, ‘modest gains in enslaved people’s living conditions, food [and] housing, were won in struggle, not given freely.’ But the material-welfare argument endured even beyond the end of the institution itself—if not as a justification, once the practice was abolished, as a footnote that seemed, to some, to mitigate an evil. And so, in that sense, it’s not really shocking to see the idea make headlines more than a century later. ‘If you take a plantation tour, they often say, ‘Well, here the slaves were well taken care of,’ ‘ Ayers notes wryly. ‘This place is always an exception.’ Not that it would really matter. ‘No matter how materially adequate [slavery] might have been, in terms of nutrition or whatever,’ Ayers says, ‘you could wake up any day and your children could be sold.’ ”

Food historian Michael W. Twitty shows O’Reilly’s claim about the food was wrong here: “Food rations given to the enslaved were weekly, monthly or rarely, daily disbursements of nourishment, and they were often inadequate. Enslaved life was always colloquial to its environs and discretionary to the personal choices of slave holders and the enslaved, thus ‘typical’ rations for an enslaved person are not easily encapsulated by one account. But records show they often failed to adequately meet their dietary and nutritional needs. Even those working at the White House were badly mistreated. Another first lady, Abigail Adams, herself described slaves at the residence as ‘half fed and destitute of clothing’.” He concludes, “Let me challenge Bill O’Reilly to eat like an enslaved black person for a week if he feels they were so ‘well fed’. I’ve eaten the dry, crumbly half-burned ashcake, rusty salted meat and plain mush and hominy. Even with molasses, they’re far from good eating. That diet damned generations to impaired health and assumptions that people of color needed less nourishment than others. If O’Reilly is so convinced that our ancestors were well fed he should let me whip him up a batch of trough mush to go with his southern fried crow.”

O’Reilly’s doubled down on his comments, claiming he was “100% accurate.” See here.

Others have also condemned O’Reilly’s comments. See here and here.

This is an opportunity to talk about how the White House was built, how enslaved people were treated, and how slavery has been defended over the years, so I suppose O’Reilly has inadvertently done us a service through his incompetence.

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13 comments

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    Michelle Obama’s speech shone like a thousand rays of sunshine. I and every other descendent of once-oppressed peoples, took a collective moment to reflect upon our own unique experience: A rendezvous with opportunity and seizing our destiny in this great country. However, for the once enslaved, it was the longest journey. It was truly a beautiful moment to see OUR first lady stand before us as the embodiment of human resilience and fortitude that was brought forth by the generations before her.

    Regarding Bill O’Reilly’s claim of the White House slaves being “well fed”? I believe that this partial quote from Abraham Lincoln in response to hearing a person argue for slavery sums it up:

    “I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally”

    1. Jason Perez · · Reply

      Bee the exact same quote came to mind for me.

      “Whenever I hear anyone arguing over slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally”

      That’s what I think Everytime I hear silly apologetics for slavery…ever time

  2. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    I find it incredulous that so many people wish to reject the facts about slavery in order to mitigate its effect on the United States. In many ways, slavery and the racism it engendered are some of the major themes in our history. They cannot be swept under the carpet. They must be confronted, discussed, dissected, and thoroughly explored in all of their ugliness so that we, the living, can move forward in achieving the goals of the American Revolution.

    Look at all the primary sources on slavery that historians use in developing our understanding of slavery. The evidence is vast. Yet, O’Reilly runs his mouth and offers not a shred of evidence to support his statements and people rush to believe him. They prefer the comforting fiction over the distasteful truth.

    I keep hearing people whine about Michelle’s statement by saying she was promoting division on purpose by making that claim. If the truth is divisive, then we need to confront it and eliminate the divisions that make it the truth. Ignoring the truth will only keep those divisions in existence.

    1. My sense is that most of those who claim the First Lady was promoting division haven’t heard what she said in context. All they know is she said she wakes up each day in a house built by slaves. That makes them think she was complaining, when in fact she was celebrating the progress this nation made.

      1. Jason Perez · · Reply

        Jimmy,

        Yeah, there’s always attempts to downplay it. I’ve heard just about everything note.

        Al,

        Well al if these people cared about things like context who knows, maybe a we wouldn’t even be debating about this stuff

    2. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

      Professor Dick,

      I just could not help to think that O’Reilly’s attempt to dilute the First Lady’s message was so much like the childhood experience of spending all afternoon building the sandcastle, and the bully runs over and smashes it to pieces — an effort laid to waste.

      It isn’t going to work this time, as O’Reilly is a dinosaur and he is on his way to irrelevance.

      The next generation is on the fast track to power, and it is one of diversity and inclusion. . After Trump’s circus is ushered out of town by the voters, the sea change will be in place . O’Reilly and his ilk will be exposed as ridiculously out of time and place, and eventually shown the door, too.

      The demographics of this country are changing, and those of us of who were once thought of as sidelined “minorities”, are not so much minority nor are we quiet anymore. We are smart, educated, and we are not fooled by buffoons who make pathetic attempts to dismiss one of our role models by using unsubstantiated claims of “history”.

      November cannot come fast enough, so that I can wave bye-bye to this ship of fools, and we can get on with the business of pulling this population together, instead of trying to tear it apart.

  3. Jason Perez · · Reply

    Great read al, A+
    Particularly enjoyed the compilation of rebuttles for incompetence. One of my favorite things about your structure is when you say this was dealt with here and here and this was dealt with here. Please keep that up

  4. You can add the Washington Post to the list of folks that have called him out:
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2016/07/28/bill-oreilly-irretrievably-loses-it-over-white-house-slaves/?wpisrc=nl_az_most

    If he truly was a historian, he’d have the sense and maturity to take a deep breath and say he messed up. I’m not holding my breath.

  5. bob carey · · Reply

    Al,
    Good job as always.
    Did you noticed the O’Reilly only wants to debate history with celebrities. He wouldn’t last two minutes with a Simpson, Levin or a Mackey.

    1. Take my name out and I’ll agree wholeheartedly. I’d probably be too nervous to talk. 😉

      1. bob carey · · Reply

        In a real debate setting you would do just fine. You have passion, O’Reilly’s feign passion is phony he is strictly in it for the money.

        1. O’Reilly has a paid research staff and lots of experience.

          1. bob carey · ·

            Either his staff is overpaid or they are underpaid and enjoy making him look foolish. I don’t watch him that often but he does seem to be fast and loose with the facts.

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