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Time for History and Historians to Get Real about Slavery April 11, 2008

Posted by twilightandreason in Higher Education.
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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



1. Dave McArdle - April 21, 2008

Hello ,to the fairness of the evaluation of Slave Holders .If as we see moralizing yesterdays evil both black and white ,we stain Andrew Jackson for a condition he did not cause SLAVERY. We neglect to see the Black and white slave Holders who actually helped a seemingly hopeless people .if we are moralize vicious and ignorant things humen beings do to one another here in the world we must not neglect to see the cause of such confusion.Africans and other non Americans sold thier own people into bondage ,is this not a fact we can not ignore?? Did Andrew Jackson or any black slave holder cause this condition to exist ??? we know the ansewr is NO.So when proffessor Luvitt makes a bitter judgement to condemn Jackson he also condemns those vicious and non human beings who caused the problem in the first cause of you will.And are still if i might add enslaving humans to this yes evil condition , Is this also Jacksons problem in his defence ,and in fact Jackson was a whealthy man –never needed slave labor he made more money in one day at the race track than from slave labor .Why then did he have slaves and free them from the chains he found them in??it is illogical to false to assume Jackson or any other slave holder black or white did so to malichiously hurt or harm ,to the contray he thought he was protecting the poor wretched people he worried about and cared for .At least even if you disagree give me credit to get to the truth of this matter opemly and without predjudice.

2. twilightandreason - April 21, 2008

Thank you for you thoughtful and passionate response.

In response to the notion that in holding Jackson accountable for his participation in a cruel and dehumanizing institution we are “stain[ing]” him with blame for an institution that he did not cause, I would counter that his participation in an institution that many had already recognized as indefensibly barbaric is in and on itself reprehensible, whether or not he invented the institution himself. It is the same principle that is applied to soldiers who participate in the torture or extermination of prisoners, even when they themselves did not build the prison camps.

As to the fact that there was (and is) slavery in other parts of the world besides the U.S., this fact does not make U.S. slavery any less cruel.

3. Dave McArdle - April 21, 2008

thank you for your response. I agree reprehensable actions on anyones part should not be slighted or ignored .not caring or thinking about such autrocities is most unpleasant and ,indeed needs to be spoken about and studied.perhaps the old adage some good comes from the evils of the past ,but not to be ejoyed,or left as an excuse.May i with out Pontificating my ownself learn a more sensitive approach to this terrible human misuse of Gods gifts,is n my own wish .yes many white people are ,not of the same thinking and sensitivity as black people as to the terrible consequences of the injustist served to the unfortunate souls so abused.Unfortunately ,being white does have its limitations,as to feeling inadaquate to rendering the justifications to black ,if there is {such a thing}as black thinking?? not sure where that goes but you are correct right will allways be right and wrong will allways be wrong.the way im reading the past , Jackson called slavery the peculiar institution of slavery. to me he had not a clue as to how to properly end the use of free labor>figuring his last words im sorry for disturbing you children {to fanily and house slaves }we will all meet in heavan both vlack and white .does this seem a man who would deliberatley or no matter how misguided would abuse what he clearly tecognized as a another child of God?? death bed last words are testimony in a court of law we cannot ignore Jacksons perhaps Personal ignorence as to justify his beliving these poor spuls where his property in that we agree .but my God if the man were a Simon Lucree it would be a much differant story?? i thank you for acknowledgment a student here 65 but i can learn i played Jackson in the movie and perhaps have not given as much attention to your point of view as i should have

4. twilightandreason - April 22, 2008

Dave, I truly appreciate your heartfelt sentiments on this subject. In the end, I believe that our interpretation of the legacy of Jackson and other presidents and statesmen who owned slaves will require concessions from those who would overlook their hero’s participation in slavery as well as from those whose focus is on the cruel injustice of the “peculiar institution.”

In the end, we will end up with a deeply complex understanding of Jackson, Washington, Jefferson, and the other presidents who owned slaves. I believe we will have to acknowledge that strong leaders — even honorable, honest, compassionate and admirable leaders — can also have enormous blindspots when it comes to their capacity to understand the humanity of those who are different.

Just as there are some great leaders who were also notorious womanizers, there are many great leaders who participated in the enslavement and marginalization of Black people.

I commend you for portraying Jackson, and I hope that you will return to continue in that role, knowing that to acknowledge his participation in a cruel and unjust institution does not truly diminish the significance of the things that he did well; it just complicates our view of him. It forces us to have a more sophisticated view of what it means to be a great or historic leader.

5. Dave McArdle - April 22, 2008

Most humbly proffesor,im so happy at least im not getting an f.I think you are very good at at understanding my dilema ,and have a truley gentle and gifted way to bring to my attention what good i am striving for rather than my curiosity as to my own understanding of the most senstitive issue .thank you i will continue to believe Jackson did not Purposely mean to be hurtful ,but apparantly some think he was .I will try sincerely try to research and report positive and negitive factors as honestly as i can . to be quite honest i guess what confuses me the most is ,thinking can we throw in one barrel all the trouble makers ,or to say there are degrees of acomplising?? it is quite interesting ,again thank you . He did have his negitive side for sure

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