From the blog Feministe about a CNN story on Michelle Obama’s “slave roots”:
(W)e would have loved to see CNN do is to acknowledge that all Americans have slave roots, not just Michelle Obama. We are a country that owes much of our prosperity to our slave labor history. The White House was built by slaves. Thomas Jefferson would not have had the leisure to write one of America’s most treasured documents had he not owned slaves. This country would not be here if it weren’t for slaves. This is not news. Slavery is part of our collective history, and not just the history of Michelle Obama and other descendants of the African Diaspora.
Instead of noting that, CNN presented their trip to Friendfield as celebrity story–like going to Spain with Penelope Cruz!–and thoroughly erased the reality of slavery from their coverage. Describing a former plantation as “Not exactly ‘Gone With the Wind’” is almost laughably offensive, implying that if Michelle’s great-great-grandfather had been lucky enough to be a slave on the fictional plantation of Tara, his life would have been that much better. The piece does detail some of the woes of life at Friendfield, noting that the shacks the slaves lived in were hot in summer, cold in winter, and provided little protection from creatures ranging from chiggers to alligators. However, nowhere does CNN note the other unpleasantries Michelle’s great-great-grandfather and other slaves likely experienced, such as rape, flogging, or having one’s child taken away. The most jawdropping line, to us, is this one: “And unlike the CNN crew, the slaves were not free to leave.” No kidding. But hey, lucky you!
The writers at Feministe make an excellent point in that slavery is often discussed as an isolated issue that only affected American blacks and the South, rather than discussing it as part of the “Big Picture,” where slavery impacted everything from the American way of life to the economy. No part of American life went untouched by the scourge of slavery and it is a history equally shared by both white and black Americans (not to mention by people across the Diaspora). But as long as we talk about slavery as only us and very little them, nothing will ever get reconciled.