Time for History and Historians to Get Real about Slavery April 11, 2008Posted by twilightandreason in Higher Education.
Tags: Andrew Jackson, Black Students, Carl Byker, Higher Education, History, race, Slavery, U.S. Presidents
A couple Wednesdays ago I came across an very wonderful article in the March 24, 2008 edition of the Oakland Tribune. You can reaed the article at this link: “No More Excuses About Slavery.”
The article, written by Carl Byker, producer of the recent documentary Andrew Jackson: Good, Evil and the Presidency, describes the outcry across the state of Tennessee at the shift (both in his film on the former president and at The Hermitage Plantation historical site, Jackson’s home in Tennessee) away from portraying this antebellum chief executive as a “good slave owner” and more toward characterizing slavery (at The Hermitage and everywhere else it occurred) as a tragic and brutal institution perpetrated by people who, however good they may have been in other aspects of their lives, both sanctioned and perpetuated the cruel and dehumanizing practice of chattel enslavement. Byker writes,
For decades, the 200,000 school kids, retirees and vacationing families who visit the Hermitage each year have been told that Jackson was a “good slave owner.” The historical justification for this description was that Jackson did not sadistically abuse his slaves or sell their children.
But today, there’s little support among historians for any “good slave owner” designation. In Jackson’s case, the fact is that he owned more than 140 human beings. And as historian Bobby Lovett of Tennessee State University puts it: “To enslave another human being, you can’t be a good person. You have to be a pretty tough, vicious, mean person to hold another person or another 140 people in slavery for all of their lives.”
And so, in 2007, the Hermitage began focusing on how brutal and hopeless the lives of the slaves who lived there were, instead of on how “good” their master was. And that’s when things started to get ugly.
Byker focuses on David McArdle, a long-time Jackson impersonator at the Hermitage and an opponent of the new focus on the former president’s culpability for his participation in the enslavement of Black people. For Byker, David McArdle’s attitude is emblematic of Tennesseans’ and others’ resistance to any characterization of the cruelty of slavery and slave owners that might cast their hero in a negative light:
For years, Dave McArdle loved dressing up as Andrew Jackson, and visitors to the Hermitage delighted in McArdle’s folksy way of bringing “Old Hickory” to life. McArdle is also the spitting image of Jackson, and we cast him as Jackson in our film. But just after we finished shooting, startling news arrived: McArdle had resigned from the job he loved — the job for which he was seemingly born — because he refused to work for an organization that made Jackson look bad because he owned slaves.
Soon after, we found out that McArdle held something close to the majority view in Tennessee. Our PBS biography of Jackson, which shared the Hermitage’s new approach to slavery, has been attacked by white Tennesseans at screenings, in letters to newspapers and e-mails to PBS stations.
One viewer wrote: “I am outraged at the way you and professor Bobby Lovett, who appears in your show, portray Jackson’s ownership of slaves as ‘evil.’ That kind of thinking is what I call ‘present-ism,’ applying the standards of today to Americans who lived in the past.”
And there it is. Bitterness and misunderstanding. A racial stalemate. Lovett is black, and I’ll hazard a guess that most black Americans would consider his statement that it takes a “vicious, mean person” to enslave another person for their entire life pretty obvious.
What Byker describes here is the persistence of denial, in large portions of America’s non-Black population, about the inherent cruelty of U.S. slavery in all of its forms and under all of its masters.
I believe that the state of denial about the cruelty of slavery, a core event in the history of the U.S., points to the larger issue of why some Black young people do not trust the institutions and individuals — the primary schools, secondary schools, colleges, and museums, the teachers, professors, and administrators — that preserve and disseminate historical knowledge.
Andrew Jackson is just one of several antebellum presidents who owned enslaved African Americans (8 of them owned slaves while in office) and who are celebrated as heroic patriarchs; and The Hermitage historical site is not alone in perpetuating the notion that Jackson’s or any other president’s choice either to reject or to participate in the enslavement of Black people is irrelevant to any evaluation of his greatness. This idea — that it is only his policies created in response to the needs of white people that are the basis for the evaluation of a president’s legacy– is pervasive in U.S. education and in the monuments, museums, and historical sites that tell the story of America’s past.
And yet to offer up such biased retellings of U.S. history reveals education as a tool, not for teaching how to think (critically and analytically), but more as a tool for teaching what to think. More specifically, when teachers and historians advocate the line that Jackson (or Washington, Jefferson, Grant, Van Buren, et cetera) was a “good slaveowner,” they paint themselves and the larger enterprise of education as tool for advancing a perspective on history that denigrates and marginalizes the struggle and dignity of African American people and our ancestors, even as it privileges a Euro-centric historical lens that discounts all experiences of all those who are not white.
Is it any wonder, then, that there exists a small proportion of young Black people who look at the emphasis in high school curricula on the heroism of white slaveowners like Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson and conclude that to be successful within an education structure that advocates such white supremacist notions might indeed be “acting white”?
Posted by Ajuan Mance