by Jason Allen, HAS Board Member
Recently I had a "war of emails" with my daughter’s 1st grade teacher. My daughter told me that her teacher said George Washington "didn’t own slaves when he was young" and didn’t want to own slaves, but she knew her teacher left out that Washington continued to own enslaved African Americans from age 11 to his death. My daughter knew that Ben Franklin didn’t want to own slaves so he freed the people he had enslaved. Her teacher went on to say the Martha did not own slaves. And her teacher also did not believe I was a public historian.
I sent this teacher links from http://www.mountvernon.org about George & Martha, but she still maintained that she did not believe George’s & Martha’s desire to own slaves. I explained to her that Washington’s letters belie his actions. I finally sent her a link to the story of Onney Judge & the HAS website, explaining to her that it is not possible for me to see Washington or any other slaveholder as a freedom fighter if they enslaved African Americans and that if we teach that enslavement is wrong how can we also teach that its practitioners are heroes. This reminded me of the lies I was told in school: "It happened in the South" and "The founders didn’t know slavery was wrong," and it seems the legacy of those lies lives on.
Then I read an article in the New York Times which connected this incident with the larger problem modern day freedom fighters face. In this article the race of the perpetrators of the lynchings of African Americans are not given. Another piece I read online syncs with my feelings about the Times article. Those who are either directly or indirectly perpetrated or supported the evils of lynching, Jim Crow, slavery, the prison industrial complex, stand your ground etc. are never racialized thus denying the connection institutions between yesterday and today conventions. The perps are an "invisible empire" where the nameless are bad and we are good. This masks and denies the benefits of slavery and white supremacy to the descendants of Europeans.
Generations of Americans of all races and ethnicities have been taught to honor, mythologize and hold sacred slave owners like Washington, Jefferson and Jackson. They are on our currency, but they are perceived, in the popular imagination, as being apart from America’s peculiar institution: The institution is found guilty, but not the perps. Slavery is forced upon a begrudging Washington. All of this to indoctrinate our youth and bathe them in American values free of the inconsistency and hypocracy of a slave owner demanding his own freedom and liberty. I told the teacher this misinformation makes history a "farce." It allows us, by design, to ignore the inconsistencies of the past, and thus only seem natural and right that we would ignore them today.
I think modern thinking about today’s slaveries suffers from similar myopic views and casual denials. We deny our own complicity at the same time as indicting the institution, but the practice exists because we perpetuate it through what we buy and our silence. We deny that today’s perps are the corporations we admire, own stock in or products from, and work for, while holding the low-level slavers as vile and yet not seeing them or the enslaved or the roles enslavement plays in our economic, social and political lives. The slavers have become analogous to the institution of slavery. We, living in and espousing freedom, have become or placed ourselves apart from fault and responsibility for modern day human trafficking. We have compartmentalized our participation in the enslavement and exploitation of others just as we have done for Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, and others.
The inconsistencies past and present must be that with which our youth are indoctrinated: how freedom and liberty are debased, deformed and devalued in a land of enslavement, exploitation and denial of others that can not or will not seen by the public. That is how we make freedom ring. Otherwise we are hypocrites and our ideals become farce. That is our legacy if we do not set the record straight for our youth.