If there is one thing I have learned from the Black Church, and there are many, it is the need to “make it plain.”
In the course of this research, I have encountered nearly endless ways of talking about enslavement in America. There are some, like Whitney and Evergreen Plantations in Louisiana, who do a good job of telling the stories of people who were enslaved. In fact, Whitney was the only plantation I have visited in which we went into the big house last, and we only spent about five minutes of an hour and a half long tour inside there.
As you can well imagine, though, there are plenty of places and people that tell the story quite differently. One of these is Auburn in Natchez, Mississippi. On this very short tour, my wife and I learned next to nothing biographically about Stephen Duncan, the owner of Auburn, except for the tour guide essentially saying that he was a cotton middle-man – buying cotton from farmers and then reselling it up north. Now I may not know everything about history, but I am pretty sure that the position of cotton reseller wasn’t a thing.
Not only that, but touring the kitchen, the only part of the tour in which the enslaved people were mentioned, was optional. When we went inside, the man giving us that part (the original tour guide bowed out at this point) bragged that they had uncovered eleven names.
In case you were wondering, Stephen Duncan had enslaved more than eleven people. In fact, not only is he considered “one amongst the largest planters of [Mississippi],” but he also had “enslaved more than twenty-two hundred men, women, and children on more than fifteen cotton and sugar plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana.” Sure, not all of these folx were at Auburn, but dissolving 2,200 people to 11 people is, well, lying.
To be sure, in the midst of all that was not great at Auburn, they were not the worst. That honor goes to Beauvoir. Not only did they pay homage to Jefferson Davis as though he was an angel on earth, but the whole organization is owned by the Mississippi Division Sons of Confederate Veterans. Taking a quick look at their website reveals this “Links” page taking the viewer to such sites as “Make Dixie Great Again” and “www.1800mydixie.com.” The only time they talk about Black people is in their section highlighting Turner Hall, Jr., who was a Black person who fought for the Confederacy.
When the people at Auburn and Beauvoir, and countless other places for that matter, lie about the scope and impact of slavery, they shape narratives. They offer their visitors assurance that the South really wasn’t that bad a place, that Black people really didn’t have it that bad, and that the people we actually need to be sympathetic towards are the white people who experienced the aggression of the North when they were simply trying to live their lives.
This narrative shaping is incredibly problematic for several reasons. The first of these is that, as I said above, it’s simply a lie. When the President of the Board of Directors of Beauvoir sent me that email, he tried to appeal to the “hundreds of thousands of free blacks in the South” while clearly ignoring the millions of enslaved Black people. In Mississippi, where Beauvoir is located, the 1860 U.S. Census indicates that there were 436,631 enslaved Black people in Mississippi and only 773 free Black people. That means that in Mississippi in 1860, of the 437,404 Black people, only 0.1% of them were free.
Were there “hundreds of thousands of free blacks in the South” as this man claims? Technically, yes. Technically there were 261,918 free Black people in the South according to the 1860 Census. However, there were 3,953,760 enslaved Black people in those same states. Looking at the South as a whole, of the 4,215,678 Black people, only 6% of them were free.
When he talks about justice for the free people, he wants to overwrite the history of the millions of enslaved people. Do the stories of free Black people need to be told? Of course they do. People like Cesar Chelor and John Hemmings who were born enslaved and received their freedom and people like Thomas Day who were born free all have stories worth hearing. But to use this what-about-ism to implicitly argue that we need to not pay attention to the enslaved population because there were some free Black people serves to shape a narrative that overwrites that suffering of millions of people that lasted for centuries and still has clear connections to events of today.
I see those connections in two main ways: one, the connection between chattel slavery and carceral slavery that exists today, and two, the connection of these narratives to the harmful ideologies that lead to events like the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 and the recent shootings at Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand. The first connection is the focus of the second phase of this project, so I choose here to focus more on the second connection.
These narratives begin to form hateful ideologies from a young age. Take for example Great Hearts Monte Vista North, a school in Texas that has long used a book from publishing company Pearson entitled Prentice Hall Classics: A History of the United States. Within this book, there is a section that notes the following:
But the “peculiar institution,” as Southerners came to call it, like all human institutions should not be oversimplified. While there were cruel masters who maimed or even killed their slaves (although killing and maiming were against the law in every state), there were also kind and generous owners. The institution was as complex as the people involved. Though most slaves were whipped at some point in their lives, a few never felt the lash. Nor did all slaves work in the fields. Some were house servants or skilled artisans. Many may not have even been terribly unhappy with their lot, for they knew no other.
From this presentation, a teacher chose to make a worksheet asking students to consider the positive and negative aspects of slavery. This is an absurd task that mischaracterizes slavery and the people who suffered as well as the people who inflicted the suffering. Let me be clear: one cannot be a kind and generous owner of human beings. It’s simply oxymoronic.
But it was not only Texas that had this. In February, a story broke out from a school near me in Brentwood, Tennessee of a middle school homework assignment which asked students to “create a list of expectations for your family’s slaves” after picturing your family owns people.
These kids learn to hate from these hateful narratives that adults tell. The adults hear them as they grow up from all number of people, including their families, their neighborhoods, their churches, and yes, places like Beauvoir who claim to do history but only tell one very massaged side of it. And then these kids grow up and become adults who continue to spread this hateful message to their kids.
Don’t believe me that Beauvoir does this? Take the tour for yourself. Read the post on the email that he sent me. Or if nothing else, just look at these pictures from their conference room where the board meets:
It is clear from the email from the President and the pictures of what they keep front and center what kind of narrative they want to tell. While the narrative of telling about Jefferson Davis and the “good” parts of the Confederacy may seem harmless to some, it has resulted in the actual death of people. The narrative from Birth of a Nation led to the resurgence of the Klan. The narrative of southern sympathy led to lynching and mass incarceration. The narrative of white supremacy, which underlies all of this, leads to centuries of oppression and death that still continues today from Charlottesville to New Zealand and everywhere in between.
King himself half a century ago said there is no more time left to wait. An activist-minister friend of mine just recently repeated those same words. We have been waiting and waiting and waiting for centuries for things to change because folx just won’t make it plain.
Well no longer. I am not interested in sugar coating history. I am not interested in continuing the same narratives that kill people. I am not interested in letting people slide while they continue demonstrably false narratives that lead to a resurgence of public white supremacy. To the President of the Board of Directors at Beauvoir and others, if you continue to do this, do not expect me to go easy on you. Do not expect me to let you slide with this false history. Do not expect me to let you get away with the harm you’re doing.
It’s time to tell the truth. It’s time to form a new narrative. It’s time to make it plain.