In her speech to the Democratic National Convention last month, Michelle Obama spoke with poignancy about the fact that she, the descendant of slaves, was now living in a great mansion built by slave labor. “That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters—two beautiful, intelligent, black young women—playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
Her speech was an acknowledgment of where we as a country have been and a recognition of how far we have come. Sadly, it was met almost immediately by some who objected to any mention of the legacy of slavery, and by others who questioned the truth of her words. Researchers countered the latter with clear evidence. The White House and the Capitol building were constructed with both slave and paid labor. Though records are spotty, and it is not possible to determine precisely what percentage of the work was performed by slaves, there is documentation of 385 payments made to slave owners for “Negro hire” (a euphemism of the day for the rental of slaves) between the years 1795 and 1801 by the commissioners in charge of constructing public buildings in the District of Columbia.
This reaction of denial is one example of the reluctance in U.S. society to acknowledge the full horrors of slavery and the extent to which its legacy still influences our national conversation about race. Another example is the recurring myth of white slaves, a distorted narrative which asserts that the Irish were the first slaves brought to the British colonies in the Western Hemisphere and that their enslavement was every bit as bad, if not worse, than that of African slaves. Irish scholar Liam Hogan, disturbed by memes which he observed on social media furthering this myth, has published carefully researched articles in which he counters and debunks the narrative.
Hogan demonstrates that authors of the myth have conflated the experiences of forced removal and indentured servanthood, both voluntary and involuntary, which the British imposed on the poor of Ireland, with the system of chattel slavery which reduced African people to the status of property. While working and living conditions for both groups of people were extremely harsh, there were significant differences. Indentured servants were bound for a specified time, after which they were free to build a life in the new world. They enjoyed some legal protections, and their children were born free. The indenture did not extend to the next generation. Slaves, on the other hand, were property with no legal rights, and their children became property as well.
Tracing the origins of the myth to a book by Holocaust denier and conspiracy theorist Michael A. Hoffman, II, who self-published “They Were White and They Were Slaves” in the early 1990s, Hogan documents how the theme has been picked up and disseminated by white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites. Most recently, memes appearing on social media have claimed to reveal forgotten and suppressed history. Those who are justifiably proud of their Irish ancestry then take these claims at face value and unwittingly contribute to the spread of false information.
As Hogan points out in a lengthy interview with Alex Amend of the Southern Poverty Law Center, his work is examining the question of why the meme is “used so often to justify anti-black nativism and racism. The sentiment is ‘we were slaves, too, but we moved on,’ and it speaks to the racist essence of white nationalism.”
During the summer Sunday School hour a group in our church has been studying the Rev. Jim Wallis’ most recent book, “America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.” Wallis names two components of that original sin – genocide against Native Americans and enslavement of Africans – but his book is primarily about the latter. As both the book and current news make clear, we as a nation have not yet properly confessed and repented of these sins which are such an integral part of our founding.
Confession means honestly admitting to events of the past and to the current reality which results from them. Distortions and denials of the history of slavery and segregation must be repudiated and corrected. On-going systems of discrimination and inequality must be exposed. Confession means clear and complete naming of the sin and recognition of our complicity in it. Only when we have truly confessed can we move to repentance.
And as we discussed just this morning (August 7), repentance is not just saying we’re sorry. Repentance means turning away from injustice, from the system that is in place to perpetuate inequality, and actively moving in a different direction. For us white folks, it means acknowledging that white privilege exists and that we benefit from it, often in ways of which we are not even aware. And then it means deciding what we are going to do about it. As the book title suggests, Wallis holds the hope that, through confession and repentance, we can indeed build a bridge to a New America, where all are treated justly and every life is equally valued. We aren’t there yet. We have much work to do.