July 05, 2007
"I never knew George Washington had slaves!"
Speaking of ridiculous things, I'm trying to figure out whether it's just the Philadelphia Inquirer which is being ridiculous, or whether the city government, the federal government, or local activists are more to blame.
Anyway, for two days now, the Inquirer has been promoting Fourth of July slavery celebrations, and the absurd idea that George Washington's ownership of slaves has been covered up by historians.
Yesterday, the Inquirer featured an emotional article (it would be tough to call it a "report," and I don't think it was intended as an editorial) by Stephan Salisbury. Salisbury goes by the title of "INQUIRER CULTURE WRITER" and I'm not quite sure what that means, or how many there are, because another writer, one Peter Dobrin, also seems to hold that title. At least he did last week, except he's the Inky's music critic. You know, ballet, music, the arts? These are things we like to call culture.
I guess it's also considered "culture" to scold George Washington for his crimes and hold mock "funerals" for long dead slaves, but Salisbury's emotional piece -- "Washington's slaves finally get full Phila. burial" -- does just that.
Nine Philadelphia slaves received their proper funeral Tuesday, about 200 years after their deaths.While I see three factual errors, I don't know whose job it should be to correct them; mine or the Inquirer's.
Or is this exercise an absurd and surreal waste of time? Should I just accept the fact that this story is grounded in emotion and not reality, and understand that the Inquirer feels obligated to run it? I really don't know. Are bloggers even supposed to correct errors in obviously emotional pieces? Are there rules? Does it matter that according to historical records, Washington's slaves of African descent who were not born in Africa cannot properly be called "Africans"? Or does that interfere with the cultural "narrative" the Inquirer's readers are expected to swallow in an obedient state of quasi-religious shame?
What about the plain logical fact that a "burial" simply cannot be held for people who are long dead? Does that matter?
And does it matter that it is impossible to celebrate the "freedom" of dead slaves? While two of the slaves (Hercules and Oney Judge) escaped, and Washington eventually freed his slaves on his death, the fact is that all of these people are long dead, and they either died in slavery or in freedom. There is no way to free them now, or celebrate their freedom now, much less link their "freedom" to that of nine unrelated individuals -- none of whom can assert any connection to Washington's slaves other than the fact that they belong to the same race.
Or does logic have no place in analyzing fantasy? Look, I have no problem with fantasy. Some of my best friends are really into fantasy, but I'd find it a little disturbing if their fantasies were reported as news.
The fantasy being promulgated is that Washington's ownership of slaves -- something I and everyone I know was taught as a child -- is part of a historical coverup which has now been unearthed, and that this "new" historical meme now rivals the founding of the country:
Each year an activist group - the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition - has demonstrated there, demanding that the federal government and the National Park Service properly recognize and commemorate Washington's slaves, who were quartered at the house site, now steps away from the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center.Until recently? Names and accounts of the slaves appeared in Stephen Decatur's Private Affairs of George Washington -- a book printed in 1933. I have not conducted historical research so I'll be generous here and assume that before 1933 the names of the slaves were unknown "even to dedicated historians."
But by what possible standard can 1933 be considered "recently"?
Historical coverup? If I didn't know any better, I'd swear that the Inquirer is running its own historical coverup.
And the bottom line is that Philadelphia children "never knew":
Christopher Waters, 10, who attends Thomas G. Morton Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia, eulogized Austin, who labored in a variety of capacities for Washington and his wife, Martha. Austin was Oney Judge's half-brother.Your tax dollars at
I might have been willing to overlook yesterday's morbid fantasy-horror story if the Inquirer hadn't served up more today, in a story titled "A somber memorial at a site of slavery":
Outside Independence Hall yesterday, flags were waving and the crowd was snazzy in red, white and blue.Physical evidence? In the form of a passage connecting two buildings? Is there some reason the Inquirer can't see fit to point out that not only are the slave quarters at Mt Vernon never been kept secret, but they've been open to public visitors since 1962? This "underground passage" means absolutely nothing, and (as I've discussed before) sheds no new historical light on a subject which has never been debated by any serious historian -- or for that matter, any American with even the most rudimentary knowledge of history.
Of course, the true goal here might not involve exposing a historical coverup, but merely alleging one in order to draw more tourists to Philadelphia.
In that regard, it might be more patriotic of me to go along with the P.T. Barnum approach. (You know.... "Step right up and see George Washington's bloody whipping post!")
And folks, if you enjoy Philadelphia's historical slavery coverup as much as I do, isn't it about time someone told Mayor Bloomberg to tear down the Brooklyn Bridge?
posted by Eric on 07.05.07 at 10:26 AM
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