I learned about Harry Washington from Jill Lepore’s masterful new book, “These Truths: A History of the United States.” The first portion of it is sodden with the blood of slaves — rebellion after rebellion and punishment after punishment, hangings and burnings and decapitations. Slavery was not some peculiar institution, as it was once peculiarly called, but in certain southern states was as economically essential as coal would be to West Virginia or oil to Texas. Slavery is what states such as South Carolina and Georgia did.
For white Americans, racism and the centrality of slavery once lurked beneath the surface of our culture. Generations of Americans saw “Gone with the Wind” and did not recoil from its depiction of slavery as benign. The film showed African Americans who were loyal to the O’Haras, including Butterfly McQueen, who played Scarlett O’Hara’s maid, Prissy, screeching “Oh, Miss Scarlett, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies!” (McQueen went on to get a bachelor’s degree in political science at the age of 64.) “Gone with the Wind” won 10 Academy Awards. I now find it unwatchable.
A new generation of scholars has looked unflinchingly at the true evils of slavery and racism. This is history from the ground up, from the common man’s perspective, or what Colgate University’s Robert Garland calls “The Other Side of History.” Thus, we have recently learned more about the huge role slavery played not just in the formation of our dear republic but also in the creation of so many fortunes. Many American companies and institutions profited from the ownership of slaves (Lehman Brothers, Georgetown University), and whole industries — cotton, sugar — were the products of slave labor.
Lepore’s book doesn’t quite fit into that category of “The Other Side of History.” George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and the rest get their due. But so do their slaves. During the American Revolution, they escaped by the dozens from Washington’s Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello. They ran to British lines or to the North. At the end of the war, 30 slaves fled toward British lines from Monticello. Of them, 15 died along the way. In South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor, desperate slaves plunged into the water, reaching for British longboats. “The swimmers grabbed the rails of the crowded boats and tried to climb aboard,” Lepore writes. “When they would not let go, the British soldiers on the boats tried to hack off their fingers.”
My context is as a history buff, as a school kid who consumed his history texts even before they were assigned and who, before the age of 12, read Howard Fast’s novel “Freedom Road” about the Reconstruction era. And yet I once could sit though “Gone with the Wind” and not recoil at the depiction of happy slaves. In elementary school during the 1950s, I was actually taught that most slaves were, in fact, happy.
The American Revolution itself was a challenge to slavery. If all men were created equal, then how could some be enslaved? The Founding Fathers wrestled with this contradiction. Some such as Jefferson and Washington retained their slaves until death. Others had long before come to acknowledge their unacceptable hypocrisy and freed their slaves. The Quakers adamantly condemned slavery. That tinkering Pennsylvanian, the ever-wise (and once-slaveholding) Benjamin Franklin, became an abolitionist.
What are we to do with our history? We must acknowledge it, as we have been doing. We must recognize the ubiquity of racism, that slavery exists just one shovel down from the surface — and racism, like the dew, still clings to the very top. We must utilize that handy word “and.” We were slave owners and abolitionists, we held people as property and asserted that all were born equal. We were very bad and very good, and now the very good in us must make amends. I oppose reparations, yet a huge debt is nevertheless owed: not of money, but of knowledge and, with it, the recognition that we were shaped by slavery, and by the two Washingtons — one a slave, the other a master, and both Americans.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.