I recently listened to two audiobooks back to back that looked at the history and legacy of slavery in the United States.
How the Word is Passed explores the legacy of slavery modern American places. It compares and contrasts discussions of the lives of enslaved people at Monticello and Whitney Plantation. Monticello was the home of Thomas Jefferson. For a long time it avoided focusing on the inherent contradictions of the man who wrote “all men are created equal” while owning and fathering enslaved people. This history is now being focused on more – and not everyone is happy. In contrast Whitney Plantation was preserved specially to highlight the treatment of the people held there. It doesn’t glorify antebellum lives of white people.
The author also visits Angola. This former plantation is now a large prison that is famous for having a huge agricultural operation run by mostly African-American prisoners. How is that different than plantation life?
For people who have read about and studied a lot of history there isn’t a lot that is new in these stories. Less well known is the history of New York, specifically in the Wall Street district, in relation to the slave auction that was held there.
Ty Seidule was a white man from Virginia who grew up idolizing Robert E. Lee. He eventually because a history teacher at West Point. He came under fire for a speech he gave in which he recommended getting rid of Confederate monuments and Army base names. This is the story of how he came to this point. He had to let go of his history of revering the Southern leaders. He went to segregation academies. He attended Washington and Lee University that has shrines to Lee. He has fought against monuments to the Confederacy at West Point.
I was not aware of Lee’s post-Civil War career as the leader of Washington University. Seidule does a great job of explaining how the Lost Cause mythology – that the South fought for anything other than the preservation of slavery – sprung up and has been promoted.
I would recommend How the Word was Passed for people who are just starting to study the U.S. systemic racism problem. Robert E. Lee and Me looks deeper at the propaganda around the war and how that is continuing to empower racist behavior today.