By Margaret Biser, Vox
Up until about a year ago, I worked at a historic site in the South that included an old house and a nearby plantation. My job was to lead tours and tell guests about the people who made plantations possible: the slaves.
The site I worked at most frequently had more than 100 enslaved workers associated with it— 27 people serving the household alone, outnumbering the home’s three white residents by a factor of nine. Yet many guests who visited the house and took the tour reacted with hostility to hearing a presentation that focused more on the slaves than on the owners.
The first time it happened, I had just finished a tour of the home. People were filing out of their seats, and one man stayed behind to talk to me. He said, “Listen, I just wanted to say that dragging all this slavery stuff up again is bringing down America.”
I started to protest, but he interrupted me. “You didn’t know. You’re young. But America is the greatest country in the world, and these people out there, they’d do anything to make America less great.” He was loud and confusing, and I was 22 years old and he seemed like a million feet tall.
Lots of folks who visit historic sites and plantations don’t expect to hear too much about slavery while they’re there. Their surprise isn’t unjustified: Relatively speaking, the move toward inclusive history in museums is fairly recent, and still underway. And as recent debates over Confederate iconography have shown, as a country we’re still working through our response to the horrors of slavery, even a century and a half after the end of the Civil War.
The majority of interactions I had with museum guests were positive, and most visitors I encountered weren’t as outwardly angry as that man who confronted me early on. (Though some were. One favorite: a 60-ish guy in a black tank top who, annoyed both at having to wait for a tour and at the fact that the next tour focused on slaves, came back at me with, “Yeah, well, Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, so I guess what goes around comes around!”)
Still, I’d often meet visitors who had earnest but deep misunderstandings about the nature of American slavery. These folks were usually, but not always, a little older, and almost invariably white. I was often asked if the slaves there got paid, or (less often) whether they had signed up to work there. You could tell from the questions — and, not less importantly, from the body language — that the people asking were genuinely ignorant of this part of the country’s history.
The more overtly negative reactions to hearing about slave history were varied in their levels of subtlety. Sometimes it was as simple as watching a guest’s body language go from warm to cold at the mention of slavery in the midst of the historic home tour. I also met guests from all over the country who, by means of suggestive questioning of the “Wouldn’t you agree that…” variety, would try to lead me to admit that slavery and slaveholders weren’t as bad as they’ve been made out to be.
On my tours, such moments occurred less frequently if visitors of color were present. Perhaps guests felt more comfortable asking me these questions because I am white, though my African-American coworkers were by no means exempt from such experiences. At any rate, these moments happened often enough that I eventually began writing them down (and, later, tweeting about them).
Taken together, these are the most common misconceptions about American slavery I encountered during my time interpreting history to the public:
1) People think slaveholders “took care” of their slaves out of the goodness of their hearts, rather than out of economic interest
There is a surprisingly prevalent belief out there that slaves’ rations and housing were bestowed upon them out of the master’s goodwill, rather than handed down as a necessity for their continued labor — and their master’s continued profit.
This view was expressed to me often, usually by people asking if the family was “kind” or “benevolent” to their slaves, but at no point was it better encapsulated than by a youngish mom taking the house tour with her 6-year-old daughter a couple of years ago. I had been showing them the inventory to the building, which sets a value on all the high-ticket items in the home, including silver, books, horses, and, of course, actual human people. (Remember that the technical definition of a slave is not just an unpaid worker, but a person considered property.)
For most guests, this is the most emotionally meaningful moment of the tour. I showed the young mother some of the slaves’ names and pointed out which people were related to each other. The mom stiffened up, raised her chin, and asked pinchedly, “Did the slaves here appreciate the care they got from their mistress?”
2) People know that field slavery was bad but think household slavery was pretty all right, if not an outright sweet deal
“These were house slaves, so they must have had a pretty all right life, right?” is a phrase I heard again and again. Folks would ask me if members of the enslaved household staff felt “fortunate” that they “got to” sleep in the house or “got to” serve a politically powerful owner.
Relatedly, many guests seemed to think that the only reason to seek liberation from household slavery was if you were being beaten or abused. A large part of the house tours I gave was narratives of men and women who dared to attempt escape from it, and so many museum visitors asked me, in all earnestness and surprise, why those men and women tried to escape: “They lived in a nice house here, and they weren’t being beaten. Do we know why they wanted to leave?” These folks were seeing the evil of slavery primarily as a function of the physical environment and the behavior of individual slaveowners, not as inherent to the system itself.
It is worth mentioning that I never, on any tour, said the slaves weren’t being beaten — these visitors simply assumed it. It is also worth mentioning here that the bulk of wanted ads placed in newspapers for fugitive slaves are for house servants, not field workers. Apparently, whatever slavery was like in the big house, people were willing to risk their lives to get away from it.
3) People think slavery and poverty are interchangeable
Sometimes in the course of a conversation, guests I spoke with would remark that while being a field slave was indeed difficult, on the whole, it was hardly worse than being a humble farmer living off the land. Folks have not always been taught that slavery was much more than just difficult labor: It was violence, assault, family separation, fear.
One important branch of this phenomenon was guests huffily bringing up every disadvantaged group of white people under the sun — the Irish, the Polish, the Jews, indentured servants, regular servants, poor people, white women, Baptists, Catholics, modern-day wage workers, whomever — and say something like, “Well, you know they had it almost as bad as/just as bad as/much worse than slaves did.” Within the context of a tour or other interpretation, this behavior had the effect of temporarily pulling sympathy and focus away from African Americans and putting it on whites.
The most extreme example of this occurred in my very last week of work. A gentleman came in to view our replica slave quarter and, upon learning how crowded it was, said, “Well, I’ve seen taverns where five or six guys had to share a bed!” — thus adding “tavern-goers” to the list of white people who supposedly had it just as bad as slaves.
4) People don’t understand how prejudice influenced slaveholders’ actions beyond mere economic interest
I was occasionally asked what motivation slaveholders would have had for beating, starving, or otherwise maltreating enslaved workers. This was often phrased as, “If you think about it economically, they don’t work as hard if you don’t feed ’em!” (The frequent use of the general “you” in this formulation is significant because it assumes that the archetypal listener is a potential slaveholder —i.e., that the archetypal listener is white.)
Sometimes this question was asked sincerely; at other times the asker was using it to suggest that stories of abuse, suffering, and exploitation under slavery were just outliers or exaggerations.
What this perspective fails to take into account is the racist beliefs that made cruelty to slaves seem ethically permissible. Slaveowners told each other that black workers were stronger than white ones and thus didn’t require as much food or rest. They also told each other that black Americans had a higher pain tolerance — literal thick skin — and that therefore physical punishments could be employed with less restraint.
Such beliefs also helped slaveowners feel confident dismissing complaints from enslaved workers as ungrateful whining.
5) People think “loyalty” is a fair term to apply to people held in bondage
One of the few times I actually felt scared of a guest was during a crowded tour a couple of years ago. I was describing a typical dining room service: the table packed with wealthy and influential couples from the surrounding town, and, in the corners of the room, enslaved waiting men watching and serving but unable to speak. The tour was so crowded that not everyone could fit into the room, and a few tourists were listening from the hallway.
As soon as I finished my sentence about the slaves, an expressionless voice behind me intoned, “Were they loyal?” I turned around and saw a man resting his arms on either side of the door frame behind me, blocking the exit. He looked like he was about to slap me.
I asked him why he would ask that. “They gave ’em food. Gave ’em a place to live,” he said. He was just staring into the room, blank in the eyes.
“I think most people would act ‘loyal’ to a person who could shoot them for leaving,” I said. He and his adult sons keep their arms crossed as they stared at me for the rest of the tour, and I tried to stay toward the middle of the group.
All the misconceptions discussed here serve to prop up one overarching and incorrect belief: that slavery wasn’t really all that bad. And if even slavery was supposedly benign, then how bad can the struggles faced by modern-day people of color really be?
Why these misconceptions are so prevalent is a fair question. Sometimes guests were just repeating ideas they’d heard in school or from family. They were only somewhat invested in those ideas personally, and they were open to hearing new perspectives (especially when backed up by historical data).
In many other cases, however, justifications of slavery seemed primarily like an attempt by white Americans to avoid feelings of guilt for the past. After all, for many people, beliefs about one’s origins reflect one’s beliefs about oneself. We don’t want our ancestors to have done bad things because we don’t want to think of ourselves as being bad people. These slavery apologists were less invested in defending slavery per se than in defending slaveowners, and they weren’t defending slaveowners so much as themselves.
Other visitors seemed to find part of their identity in a sense of class victimhood, and they were unwilling to share the sympathy and attention of victimhood with black Americans. As Frank Guan pointed out in the New Republic, the explicitness of racism tends to be inversely proportional to social class. Guests who expressed racism most openly to me often appeared to have had recent ancestors who were poor, who were prevented by convention and economics from rising in social status, and who were exploited by the powerful — but who were protected by their whiteness from the extreme oppression visited on African Americans. Regardless of their current wealth level or social status, they still felt that the deck had been stacked against them for generations. Their sense of ancestral victimhood was so personal that the suggestion that any group of people had it worse than their ancestors did was a threat to their sense of self.
And maybe some of these guests were just looking for somewhere to place their anger at their problems, their sense of powerlessness, and their discomfort at social change. They found a scapegoat in black America. I imagine that’s what motivated Charleston shooter Dylann Roof, the Unite the Right movement, and others — that feeling of being aggrieved, and wanting someone to blame for it.
Regardless of why they were espoused, all the misconceptions discussed here lead to the same result: the assertion that slavery wasn’t really all that bad (“as long as you had a godly master,” as one guest put it). And if slavery itself was benign — slavery, a word which in most parlances is a shorthand for unjust hardship and suffering — if even slavery itself was all right, then how bad can the struggles faced by modern-day African Americans really be? Why feel bad for those who complain about racist systems today? The minimization of the unjustness and horror of slavery does more than simply keep the bad feelings of guilt, jealousy, or anger away: It liberates the denier from social responsibility to slaves’ descendants.
The question of how to improve this state of affairs is gigantic, and better heads than mine have already said much about it. The tough thing is that racism comes more from the gut than from the mind: You can prove slavery was bad six ways from Sunday, but people can still choose to believe otherwise if they want. Addressing racism isn’t just about correcting erroneous beliefs — it’s about making people see the humanity in others. We need better education that demonstrates the complexity and dignity of all people; continued efforts from community organizations and faith communities to give justice its due; and better media portraying people of color as people, not caricatures or symbols. Art, public school, faith, entertainment — these are voices that address the subconscious, voices we absorb silently without even noticing. None of these is a complete solution, of course — they are all oblique routes to building compassion.
It’s certainly not a bad idea for white Americans to take time to consider the ways in which we may personally have been complicit in oppression, but blame and guilt aren’t really the point of telling the histories of enslaved people. The point is to honor those whose tales have not been told.
On the very small scale of leading historic house tours, what helped me combat ahistorical statements was to establish trust and rapport with guests from the get-go. For me, gentleness was key: It created an environment in which people were willing to hear new views and felt less nervous asking questions. For example, guests — especially older folks — used to ask me all the time whether the people who owned the house were “good slaveowners.” I would say, “Well, that’s an interesting question,” and suggest a couple of reasons why even the phrase good slaveowner itself is troubling. They’d nod and look reflective. We were already friends, so they didn’t feel attacked by the correction. Then again, maybe they only believed me because they trusted a fellow white person as an unbiased source. And making a personal connection isn’t a foolproof way to diffuse racism, as the shooting in Charleston shows: Roof felt so welcomed by the members of Emanuel AME Church that he considered not killing any of them, yet ultimately he went through with his plan.
An older colleague once reminded me to “talk to people, not at them.” It’s a small piece of advice. But day by day as I was face to face with strangers, challenging their deeply held beliefs on race, it helped.