When Michelle Obama gave a stirring and emotional speech in 2016 about why she loves this country, she mentioned that her black daughters played on the lawn of a house built by slaves. In context that line was clearly meant to highlight how far the United States has come toward that original founding ideal of “a more perfect union.”
But the response from conservatives was overwhelmingly "how DARE that uppity ingrate bring up slavery!!"
Southern plantations are the true American Horror story. There is no doubt about that. But Americans just aren’t taught anything true about them until at least college level and even then usually as an elective. The average Americans idea of a plantation is really “Tara” from the movie “Gone with the Wind”. Real plantations were nothing like that.
I’m not just attributing this to White people. Most African Americans don’t know any better either. I myself can remember thinking “What was so bad about slavery?” as a young boy in grade school. I’m 62 this year.
The best documentary I’ve seen discussing slavery was called Slavery and the Making of America. A 4 part PBS documentary produced by WNET back in 2005. I think it’s available on Amazon Prime. It will open your eyes.
It kind of highlights the main problem with economics – the idea that people make rational decisions. Your professor’s theory glosses over the rhetoric of white supremacy and the idea that “negroes” were an inferior species of human. By the time of the American Civil War, tradition and the idea that “it was always so” would have kept slavery in place long after it had become an economic liability.
Which is why we need tours that highlight how plantations were inhumane. That the inhumanity was the point, since the people who owned them and the people who worked as overseers there did not think of the people forced to work there as people, but as work animals. It’s in their writings, fercrissakes!
Maybe the cruelty wasn’t as upfront as in Dachau, but they were slave labour farms. I like labelling them as American Horror Story, as long as it doesn’t turn into a sort of perverse glorification by accident.
This is the “long tail of popular stupidity” where whenever something stupid or evil achieves a certain high mark of general popularity, it ensures there will be people who buy, support, or embody it at least three generations later, no matter how completely it was debunked as horrible.
No doubt slavery would have persisted in some ways, especially is ways such as house servants as a status symbol. But plantations were penny pinching businesses. That’s why slaves were used. That same lack of empathy for slaves, treating them as work animals, would have no problem tossing them aside to save money. This form of ending slavery is not necessarily much improvement. Congrats, you’re free! Just can’t own property or learn to read or … or …
I agree that history needs to be honestly taught. I’ve only been to one slave plantation tour, and it wasn’t in the USA. The entire staff of the museum was of African decent. Which just added to the creepiness of the lighthearted way they treated references to slavery. I think they didn’t want to scare the tourists, but ugh.
I’ll quibble with that. Those states with good public school systems (like the one I was raised in) cover it heavily and accurately.
Southern states often exclude it from the curriculum or with those ever loving politically motivated GOP controlled school boards force adoption of text books that explicitly adopt Lost Cause interpretations. And the proliferation of private (often religious schools) post desegregation a lot of those schools were founded explicitly to give white folks the option of sending their kids somewhere that won’t teach these subjects.
So it isn’t that we don’t teach this stuff or no Americans are aware, its that certain groups have put a lot of effort into denying and preventing it from being taught.
See also those other plantation museums that Witty refers to in the article, and other posters have mentioned. Usually privately owned and more interested in giving you a budget version of Gone with the Wind than actual history. Publicly owned plantations in states without crazy balls as their educational mission specialize in calling bullshit on the subject.
Its also as far as I remember not all that valid in ecconomics. Cotton was what was becoming unprofitable, even when produced in a slave ecconomy. And that was driven first by the cotton gin and then by imported cotton coming out of North Africa and India. That wasn’t slavery becoming unsustainable, It was an agrarian ecconomy based on bulk production of cash crops becoming uncompetitive in a modern commodity market.
And that fall in the south’s ecconomic influence, along with increased ecconomic power in the North, cities, and new states and territories (a more adaptable ecconomic approach in that rising global trade system). Is a major part of why there was enough ecconomic and political power outside the South to begin pushing back on slavery in the first place.
By the time the Civil War was cooking, big chunks of the South had already moved over to tobacco and sugar cane. And REALLY interesting, a sort of psuedo-industrialization where plantations took the place of factories and slaves took the place of full mechanization. Particularly in textiles IIRC, plantations switching from raising cotton, to processing imported cotton. And while the approach was less efficient than full textile factories up North. Free labor made it potentially cheaper.
You’d have to be a bit high to think that wasn’t going to progress along the industrialization ladder. Re-entrench Southern ecconomic dominance. A factory where you don’t pay the workers is a lot more profitable than one where you pay them (even poorly).
Any hired labor would come with those costs too, since everyone needs clothing and shelter. Either you have to provide those things as part of the job or pay your labor enough to get them themselves.
The only cost specific to slave labor is the cost of guarding them, and even that cost was largely socialized via publicly funded law enforcement (slave patrols) rather than a cost borne entirely by the slaver.
The same reason most people today don’t have a live-in housekeeper. Even unpaid/underpaid labor is a luxury most people have never been able to afford.
That holds with what I’ve seen. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of households seems to be where the bulk of estimates fall. And importantly that’s a lot bigger than the size of the wealthy plantation class sitting atop the Southern Oligarchy. Basically if you were wealthy enough to own property at all. There was a pretty good chance at least some of that property came in the form of slaves. With even share croppers and tradesmen opting to purchase a person, even before they purchased land.
That’s a lot of what we mean by an ecconomy entirely based on slavery. Not just how central the plantations were to the ecconomy. But that no matter what sort of work you were doing, slaves. Owning slaves was more important than owning land.
And those costs tend to come in lower than even exploitively treated and paid labor. It was mechanization that shook slavery. There’s little reason to believe plugging slavery into that mechanization wouldn’t have been even cheaper, and slaves can’t exactly form Unions.
No doubt. Imagine how profitable slavery would be today owning factory workers, software programmers, etc. Scary. Thank goodness slavery is illegal. We like to think we are morally superior here in the future and scoff at our ancestors. But we are not born better. Had things been different, we could have been raised to believe that such a hideous practice was just and moral. Going back to fnordius point, that’s why tours are needed. So that each generation can learn that it was inhumane and immoral.
Plantations in the Caribbean were a far more genocidal affair. The average lifespan of slaves on sugar plantations were less than 2 years. Hence the constant importation of slaves from Africa and the retention of African culture in the West Indies
This one hits me hard. To this very day you will see white Brazilian women asking for a “girl to help with the house and kids” in exchange of living in their homes, laws against this be damned. My mom’s godmother was such a case: a little black girl that worked as maid and cook for 4 rich sisters that owned an entire floor apartment in Copacabana, one of the most expensive squares of land in the city. There she lived, in a small bedroom without windows beside the laundry room, for almost 80 years*. When the last of the old ladies died, Godmom became a “problem” for the heirs, what to do with her, now that she wasn’t useful anymore? They basically kicked her out to sell their property and she spent her last couple of years living in another small bedroom in her DIL house.
Just writing about it makes me pissed all over this again, I wish I could slap every one of those greedy assholes in the face.
*Seriously, Godmom was some 96 years old when she died and the last lady herself was more than 100 years old when she passed away (to the despair of the people waiting to dig their fingers on that old money as soon as she died). And not only my mother but her sisters, us, our cousins and our kids, everyone called her Godmother and loved her deeply.
This exists in other Latin countries as well, It’s possible that it was used as a status symbol but at least in the area i grew up in it was just a necessity of being middle class. Having extra help with keep the house tidy and feed the family went a long way, and at least with my family we always considered them as part of the family and i know it was the same for friends of mine that had similar help. I know it broke my mom’s heart when we couldn’t bring the lady that was with us to the USA but we’ve stayed in touch and helped her over the years.
That said just because my family was grateful and kind it doesn’t mean that was universally true. I can see how it could be easy for other people to mistreat or take advantage of people who don’t have a lot of career prospects.
I recently read an essay by a woman living in China who employed paid (female) help for her children and household and how it allowed her to continue working and to pursue more in her career. While she was grateful, and also treated those women as family, she noted that her husband took it for granted that his career would be unaffected, and that at some point she had to face the fact that the women caring for her children and household were sacrificing their own children and households for hers. Certainly an angle worth examining.
I want to come help you slap those greedy assholes in the face…
This isn’t an exact parallel, but working class black women up to the 1970s and 1980s often worked for white people of middle class and upper middle class means as maids and nannies here in the US south. Even working class whites could usually afford at least to have a washer woman come and pick up their laundry until that time in the south, where electrification lagged behind the rest of the country. Here it was also a status symbol, to be able to afford live in (or at least daily) help, which was almost always a black, working class woman. It turns our public notion of segregation on it’s head, because so many white households had daily, intimate contact with black women.