The last two weeks in American politics and society have been full of controversies and debates, but none engaged with our collective memories and historical narratives more overtly than did the response to Michelle Obama's statement, in the midst of her powerful speech to the Democratic National Convention, that "I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves." Putting on his amateur historian hat, Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly took it upon himself to fact-check Obama, admitting that slaves were among the workers who built the White House but arguing that those slaves were "well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government."
The responses to O'Reilly's response have been swift and ongoing, and have featured a veritable who's who of historians of slavery and the African American experience. Rice University professor and historian Caleb McDaniel, for example, Tweeted a series of concise and brilliant responses and contexts, offering not only rebuttals to O'Reilly's claims but also and most importantly the kinds of nuance and depth that genuine historical scholarship (unlike the facile variety found in O'Reilly's co-authored "historical" books) can provide.
There's no doubt that O'Reilly, and all Americans, would benefit from reading into the impressive and growing body of scholarship on slavery in America. Even a brief glimpse into another historically focused Twitter account run by McDaniel, Every Three Minutes (a reference to how often on average a slave was sold between 1820 and 1860), reminds us all of the kinds of inescapable realities and horrors faced by every American slave, whatever the state of their food and lodgings.
Yet I would argue that Obama's point wasn't just about slavery--it was also and even more importantly about American identity, and the fundamental interconnections between slavery and our national origins. On that note, O'Reilly and all Americans would also do well to examine a classic and still deeply relevant scholarly work, Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom (1975). While Morgan's book (like any scholarly text) has been challenged and critiqued as well as complemented and extended in the four decades since its release, its ground-breaking argument about the relationship between slavery and our Revolutionary ideals remains a vital perspective.
That is, it's relatively easy, and not wrong, to note the fundamental hypocrisy of American Framers like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington arguing for equality and liberty while owning slaves. Yet beneath and beyond that contradiction lies the inescapable fact that these historical realities and narratives did coexist, that the best and worst of American identity developed alongside and influenced one another. Morgan was one of the first historians to work to make sense of those interconnections, and his book provides a perfect context for Obama's remark and the White House histories of which she was reminding us.
Obama's quote didn't end there, though--she added, "and I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn." While she was of course noting the striking shift that the Obama administration and first family have represented, this image also reminds us of how much every American community and culture has contributed to our identity and society throughout our decidedly cross-cultural history. On that note, O'Reilly and all Americans should also peruse another classic and crucial scholarly book, Mechal Sobel's The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (1987).
A central limitation with Morgan's book and so many of our historical narratives, after all, is that they focus on those (usually European white men) who seemed to hold the political and social power throughout our history. In this understanding, slaves--and all other minority or less powerful communities--were victims whose oppression we should better remember. Indeed we should, but it's just as important that we remember as well the vital contributions that American slaves (like all those communities) made to our society and identity. Sobel's book examines every aspect of life in 18th-century Virginia to make precisely that case, analyzing the ways in which African and European American influences came together to shape that place and time comprehensively and potently.
The historical fact that slaves and other workers built the White House doesn't just tell us about slavery and labor, after all--it tells us just as much about the White House, and how cross-culturally constructed such spaces and images always are in America. While Bill O'Reilly and all Americans need to understand the specific histories of slavery much more fully, we need even more to correct our most overarching and defining collective memories and narratives, to understand just how interconnected and cross-cultural our identity and culture truly are. These books, along with Obama's speech, provide wonderful starting points for that crucial work.