In America, there is growing uneasiness about slavery’s past: ‘Why can’t America face history?’

In America, there is growing uneasiness about slavery's past: 'Why can't America face history?'

There’s one in every group, Joe McGill has said before. In this group it is an unidentified male from New Hampshire. He sits in his T-shirt and shorts on a bench in Magnolia Gardens, South Carolina, next to his wife and about fifteen onlookers. McGill tells of the Drayton family who wanted to farm this swamp and how difficult it was. Sugar – failure. Olives – failed. Citrus fruits – failure. Silk – failed. During those failing years, the hard work was done not by the Draytons, but by men and women plundered from Africa and enslaved in the swamps. The magnificent house, Drayton Hall, was the result of their slave labor. They suffered from malaria and cholera and were threatened by snakes and crocodiles. For hundreds of years, the Draytons bought the land in 1676 and slavery in America was abolished in 1865.

The garden smells wild after a light rain and the late sun sets the wooden slave houses behind McGill’s back in a fairytale light. “Do you have any questions,” McGill asks. Yes, the New Hampshire man, Magnolia’s history and culture coordinator asks the expected question, as it is asked on every tour: “Did the Drayton family treat their slaves well?”

America’s history has become a field for politicians, and no part of the past is more controversial than slavery. In recent years, many Republican-majority states have passed laws that severely restrict the teaching of national history. In South Carolina, an amendment to the Education Act has been pending since February that proposes this provision: “Beginning in the 2023-2024 school year, public schools may not teach about persons who own slaves.”

Almost everything in this series is about the hard life of immigrants

Why not America?

Germany might be too Vergangenheitsbewältigung After exterminating the Jews. Post-apartheid South Africa with its Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. “Why even civilized America can’t face the dark side of its past,” says McGill. No, he tells a questioner from New Hampshire. “There are no plantation owners who treat their slaves well. They owned slaves.

In 1860, five years before the abolition of slavery, there were 46,300 plantations in the United States, on which twenty or more people of African descent worked involuntary and unpaid work. The liberation Southern states struggled to maintain their slave economy after the end of the Civil War. The double loss of their rebellion and their main source of income is myth”Beautiful South”, as if a superior civilization had perished.

McGill also fell asleep Slave quarter At the former Sylvester Manor estate in upstate New York.
Photo by Nicole Pengiveno/The New York Times

Significant differences

Those passing through the gardens, which are now open to the public, see striking differences from those displayed in history.

The most photographed garden is Wormslow in Savannah, Georgia. A two-mile drive lined with oaks and Spanish moss was the setting for a new television series about slavery. roots From 1977, for the Zombie series The Walking Dead And for thousands of Instagram photos. Signs in the vast park point to trees, plants (‘waxy gale with its characteristic fragrance’) and birds. The film displayed in the visitor center mainly tells about the hard work of Warmslow’s ancestor Noble Jones and how he defeated the Spanish who advanced from the south in 1742.

In the mud building next to the ‘smithy’, ‘Victoria’ sews on her red bay skirt and flower pinafore. She talks about the benefits of clay as a building material, failed harvests, and the monotony of work for women in the eighteenth century. He says five to eight people slept in such a house. Slaves? No, poor white settlers. “There were slaves at Wormslow, but they slept with fifteen to twenty in a house like this.”

Joe McGill tries to sleep in former slave cabins across America, like the one at Magnolia Grove Plantation in Greensboro, Alabama.
Photo by Jahi Sikwendiu/Getty Images

Nothing about slavery

Warden Gretchen Kreminger stands behind the counter in the visitor center, apologizing for the set up in booths. Almost all are about the hard life of the settlers and the wars first with the Spanish and later with the British. You see in vain references to the slave labor done here after English investors were enslaved at the colonists’ request in 1749, on guns and local inn posters (“No more than five persons to a bed”). They were allowed in their land. “When I started working here six years ago, there was nothing about slavery,” says Kreminger. She calls this a ‘sanitized narrative’ of the past. “Since then, we’ve been able to gradually sprinkle pieces of real history through our lineup. We are moving forward.

Most visitors to Wormslow still come for the driveway and beautiful trees, says Kreminger. “They don’t realize the history behind those trees.” Is she saying that the Americans, including the descendants of Noble Jones who still live in the plantation house, don’t want to know that slaves are being held at Wormslow? “Most viewers appreciate that we’re talking about it now. But there’s also a group that says they’re uncomfortable with it. Too bad, I’m sorry to bother you with historical reality.

The implementation of slavery progressed steadily until a few years ago

He was ashamed

‘Discomfort’ is the key word. Many states (including Florida, South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas) have established by law that students should not be made to feel ‘uncomfortable’ about their race or nationality in class. There are complaint forms for that inconvenience. At Chapin High School in South Carolina, a student said he was “really ashamed to be white” after watching videos preparing for a book test. Between the world and me Black Americans’ Experiences of Structural Discrimination, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Then the administration banned the course on the book.

They are attempts to ‘protect’ children from real history, says Joe McGill. Thirteen years ago, he spent the night in a slave cabin at Magnolia. These are the same huts he now shows visitors with stoves, large mortars for rice and an inexplicably small sleeping area. In his book Sleeping with the Ancestors The following month, McGill recounts his first night’s stay. “It was not unpleasant. I listened to my breathing and thought of the men, women and children who lived in this hut.

This was the start of a project that took him to dozens of slave quarters in different states. In the early years he found many gardens that were “comfortable Gone with the Windversion of history,” he says, referring to the Civil War classic, which depicts the legend in Technicolor. Beautiful South spreading. Over the years, McGill has seen that decline. In the gardens of the first US presidents, Washington, Jefferson and Madison, visitors wandered around without knowing they were in a garden. Now they offer special tours about slavery.

Magnolia was primarily a beautiful garden—it was a major source of income after slavery was abolished. People can celebrate their weddings here, if they wish, in historic crinolines à la Scarlett O’Hara. “Would you like to get married in a concentration camp,” McGill always asks the groups he surrounds. A Jewish visitor once objected to that idea. He thought the comparison was inappropriate. Why, McGill asked: People were being worked to death against their will for hundreds of years, and the life expectancy of new forced laborers was only seven years on some plantations. “But here it is very beautiful,” said the man.

Hypocrites who own slaves

Children are more receptive to his explanations of the past than adults, says McGill. And black visitors, he finds, visiting these historic sites, sometimes feel uncomfortable explaining to whites that Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were not saintly presidents, but “slave-owning hypocrites.” He was often called upon to advise on how to deal with slave settlements. A bed and breakfast? I won’t. Half exhibition, half toilet room? How did you get the idea!

Magnolia’s current owners, still the Draytons, decided in 2009 that the garden’s full history should be told. They brought in historians and turned their property into an educational center about slavery.

The implementation of slavery progressed steadily until a few years ago. Dedicated in 2019 The New York Times His journal dates to 1619, the year the first Africans were sold on North American soil. The premise of lead author Nicole Hanna-Jones’s essay is that slavery and racism are rooted in America’s origins, so 1619 is a better starting year in American history than 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence. “It provoked an enormous reaction,” says McGill. The second trigger for the backlash was the killing of black prisoner George Floyd the following year and the riots that followed. Then began the flow of laws that govern history.

Since then, McGill has canceled some. On his website, he announced an overnight stay at an estate in Kentucky. The owners called for it to be postponed. “Never heard of it again.” In Florida, a state where Governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis is waging a crusade against “indoctrination” in education, McGill consulted with the Federal Park Service, which manages a former plantation. “That nomination has evaporated.”

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