Friday, August 5, 2016

Bill O'Reilly and Slavery: Slaves were well fed

We spoke earlier how some people were taken aback by Michelle Obama's reference to the fact that the White House was built in part by slaves. The First Lady contrasted that history with the observation that she and her daughters, black women, now wake up in the White House as its most important residents. Ain't America grand? This was, as far as I was concerned, an obvious, non-controversial and even somewhat trite observation. America had formal slavery until 1865.The White House was built before 1865. It would have been amazing if the White House hadn't had some sort of connection with slavery. But for one Bill O'Reilly, self-styled historian and Fox News talking head, it was important to claim that the slaves were "well-fed and had decent lodgings". Right. Let's say that a man rapes a woman. At the resulting trial he argues for leniency claiming that "Hey let's not forget that I wore a condom!" Would that matter?
Could a commandant at a German death camp circa 1945 point to decent lodgings and continual exposure to Wagner's greatest hits as under appreciated benefits for his prisoners "customers"? 
When a parent spanks their child and sanctimoniously tells them that "This hurts me more than it hurts you!" are they really telling the truth?
The answer to each of those questions is of course no. 
As a matter of historical fact slaves were not well fed and did not enjoy decent lodgings. Some of the people who were there at the time reported that the slaves didn't enjoy the finer things in life, to put it mildly. Abigail Adams, First Lady during the construction of the White House, had this to say concerning slavery
The effects of Slavery are visible every where; and I have amused myself from day to day in looking at the labour of 12 negroes from my window, who are employd with four small Horse Carts to remove some dirt in front of the house. the four carts are all loaded at the same time, and whilst four carry this rubish about half a mile, the remaining eight rest upon their Shovels, Two of our hardy N England men would do as much work in a day as the whole 12, but it is true Republicanism that drive the Slaves half fed, and destitute of cloathing, or fit for  to labour, whilst the owner waches about Idle, tho his one Slave is all the property he can boast, Such is the case of many of the inhabitants of this place
So Bill O'Reilly was wrong. And the people who were enslaved also didn't seem to have much positive to share about the experience:
I have known him to cut and slash the women's heads so horribly, that even master would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind himself. Master, however, was not a humane slaveholder. It required extraordinary barbarity on the part of an overseer to affect him. He was a cruel
man, hardened by a long life of slaveholding. He would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.
I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember any thing. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.
But the historical fact of slavery's reality is less interesting to me here than the fact O'Reilly and people who think as he does constantly feel the need to minimize the horror of slavery. It doesn't matter how well I treat you if I have a chain attached to you at all times and promise to beat or kill you if you ever displease me. And I or my children will do the same to your children and your children's children. Would O'Reilly sign up for that life? Would you? No you would not even if I fed you well and gave you particularly fluffy pillows to rest your head on at night.
Because slavery's sin is not just in the maltreatment of slaves, horrific though that was. The primary sin is in owning another human being the way one owns an animal. It's the elimination of someone's humanity and the reduction of them to nothing more than a piece of meat to be used for labor or breeding. My suspicion is that O'Reilly probably saw the First Lady's comment as an attack on white people and wanted to respond. Or maybe some of his ancestors owned slaves. Or maybe deep down inside despite his protestations O'Reilly has a guilty conscience. I don't know. The point is that O'Reilly's statements are part of a long history of people trying to paper over or dismiss the horrors of American slavery. Either they don't think that slavery was all that bad or they resent black people bringing it up. Slavery is one of America's original sins. No one today bears responsibility but the evil of slavery continues to bear toxic fruit. And it will likely do so for many more years. The country will never get past it as long as some people offer backhand defenses of slavery.
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