A Peculiar Institution

ShacklesIssues such as slavery seems like ancient history until you realize there those who knew men and women who were born as slaves and were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment. My father remembers one, a black woman who dropped by and reminisced about her childhood. The occasion was the cutting of a massive oak at the end of the log house where my father was born and raised, an oak that had reached the point where it had to be cut down, and had stood over the table where the previous land owners had fed their slaves in hot weather. Maybe it was my father’s young age and maybe because we weren’t related to anyone in the community, or maybe just a welcoming ear, or maybe all three, but she took time to tell him about her childhood as a slave.

Her cheery recollections shocked my father, who was still too young to know the pleasant fog of nostalgia that tends to settle over our memories. In particular was her story that her former master had treated them well, and boasted he had fed them out of troughs. It would be decades before my father realized this was a trencher, dishware baked from bread and the original disposable plate. He envisioned something like our family made for the hogs, and asked himself if that was good treatment, how much worse was the bad?

Somehow I doubt that this dear black lady’s recollections would be welcome today, for a similar reason my father found them shocking. This morning I heard of the controversy surrounding A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a children’s book published by Scholastic. The illustrations of a smiling Hercules, a cook who was a slave owned by Washington, and Delia, a child slave, were a bit much for some to take. Slaves smiling? Such was the outcry that Scholastic has pulled the book, for the idea that a slave might smile has irked some who ask how? An inappropriate portrayal of slavery, critics said.

Aside that the book was about Washington’s birthday cake and Hercules and Delia’s efforts to make one without sugar, and not about slavery, this raises a surprisingly thorny question. Just what is an appropriate depiction of slavery in the US? Odds are it would be just as amiss as a picture of slaves as all smiles. For like it or not, once we ask how someone who was a slave could smile and not why, we overlook that slaves were people, individuals, each with his or her own experiences. Worse, we overlook the main thing that all slaves found objectionable about the practice: each was considered property.

One of my grandfathers, a tenant farmer, had worked with a black sharecropper who had been born a slave. One day the subject of slavery came up, and my grandfather clearly remembered the black man saying he’d been treated better as a slave than a sharecropper, then added “. . . but it’s worth it.” He may have been a poor black sharecropper with few material comforts, but no one owned him; he was free. And that was the point. All slaves, whether they were treated with cruelty or compassion – and yes, some were treated with kindness – were property. What did it matter if you could exercise some limited autonomy, as some slaves did, if you were still, ultimately, a slave?

It’s very important that anyone interested in US history grasp this point, for once you do, all sorts of things fall into place. Add to this the realization that each slave was a person, and no person is entirely defined by their circumstance, then questions such as why some slaves were quick to follow Sherman’s columns and others stayed become individual issues. And yes, this includes how one could be a slave and smile. For a slave who smiled or laughed or sang didn’t do because of slavery, but in spite of it. If that is difficult to grasp, think of those in dire circumstances today who still find a moment of joy where they might.

Could the real Hercules and Delia have smiled? Yes, and most likely did, for they were people just like you or I, and were subject to the same feelings, and being slaves did not change that. Would they have smiled at being able to make a cake for Washington even though there was no sugar? Probably. For regardless of how they might have felt about George and Martha Washington, there would still be the satisfaction in accomplishing a seemingly impossible task.

Yet A Birthday Cake for George Washington didn’t display the “proper” view on slavery, and Scholastic has pulled, it, and in the process history had grown a bit dimmer. For history is not how we think people should have acted, but how they actually did.

Some seem to have forgotten that.