On Monday at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, First Lady Michelle Obama delivered an eloquent speech about the long arc of progress in American history and the dangers posed by the proto-fascism, cynicism, and bigotry channeled by Donald Trump. As part of that narrative, Michelle Obama decided to offer some teaching about a little-known aspect of American history. She shared how:
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.
This was a profound moment of vulnerability and strength. Michelle Obama, as a black American woman, and descendant of black human property, is also the wife of the most powerful black man on the planet. But, she lives in a building that was built with the blood, labor, sweat — and deaths — of black people. As a black woman, her reminding the public that it was slaves who looked like her that built the White House is a signal to the centrality of black women to the black freedom struggle and American history. Michelle Obama’s allusion to the complicated intersections of freedom and slavery in America also highlights the unique and especially perilous and tenuous space that the black female body occupied both during slavery, and then later on in Jim and Jane Crow, where black women were subjected to arbitrary sexual violence and assault by white men because they were denied the exclusive protections of “white femininity.”
If the ghosts of the black slaves who built the White House still wander its halls, tunnels, and grounds, they must look on at First Lady Michelle Obama and her beautiful black family with a mix of wonder, confusion, and pride. History does indeed, on a few occasions, come full circle.
Unable to remain silent or to admire the poignancy and intelligence of Michelle Obama’s comments about African-American slaves and the building of the White House, Fox News personality, professional liar, and race-baiter Bill O’Reilly felt obliged to intervene.
On Tuesday’s episode of his Fox News TV show, O’Reilly responded with a segment which pointed out that the slaves who built the White House were “well-fed” and had “decent lodgings.” He also emphasized that free blacks, whites, and other immigrants also built the White House.
O’Reilly’s comments are par for the course for a man who was surprised that black people use silverware to eat with while dining at restaurants. But even by that low standard, O’Reilly’s corrective to Michelle Obama’s speech is one of the worst moments — and there have been many — in the history of his Fox News TV show.
O’Reilly’s statement on Tuesday that slaves were “well-fed” and had “decent lodgings” reflects a belief that white on black chattel slavery was a relatively “benign” institution as opposed to a relationship prefaced on interpersonal tyranny, unlimited violence, exploitation, abuse, rape, and murder.
After he was criticized for making such comments, O’Reilly responded on Wednesday’s edition of his show with:
“It is a given that slavery is an abomination. But reporting the story behind Mrs. Obama's very valid points does not diminish the horror of enslavement as these dishonest critics allege. As any honest historian knows in order to keep slaves and free laborers strong, the Washington administration provided meat, bread and other staples, also decent lodging on the grounds of the new presidential building. That is a fact. Not a justification, not a defense of slavery. Just a fact. Anyone who implies a soft on slavery message is beneath contempt.
In reality, black human property in the Americas was often worked to death, given the bare minimum of food and other support necessary to survive, suffered from chronic illnesses, and would be abandoned to die in old age or sold off once their white owners had no more use for them.
John Adam’s wife, Abigail, who was present while the White House was being finished, made this observation about the “well-fed” black slaves and their “decent lodgings”:
Two of our hardy N England men would do as much work in a day as the whole 12, but it is true Republicanism that drive the Slaves half fed, and destitute of cloathing, ... to labour, whilst the owner waches about Idle, tho his one Slave is all the property he can boast.
Most importantly, a “well-fed” and “strong” slave is still a slave.
This distorted understanding of American history is a product of the discredited postbellum era Dunning School and the Lost Cause ideology. Adherents to that “intellectual tradition” were historians, politicians, and other white elites (almost all men) who believed that the enslavement of black Americans by whites was a social good and a natural relationship.
The Dunning School and advocates of the Lost Cause offered a vision of antebellum Southern life where whites and blacks lived peacefully together and where the institution of slavery was benevolent because it “protected” African-Americans from exploitation by northern industrialists and the bugaboo of wage labor.
[As a child, Bill O’Reilly, who himself grew up in the racially segregated Levittown housing community in New York, likely watched the documentary 1950 documentary “The Plantation System in Southern Life” in school and internalized its themes about how Southern slave society was harmonious and everyone was happy in their natural place.]
In their view, the Civil War and the (self) manumission and emancipation of black Americans destroyed a harmonious Southern society and gave a dangerous amount of freedom to black people, freedom that would have to be reined in by white terrorist organizations and paramilitary groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
The antebellum American South was not a “Gone with the Wind” fantasy of “magnolias mint juleps.” It was a military state organized around oppressing and controlling black bodies for the purposes of profit and wealth creation for white people. The slave plantation was a charnel house and place of mass rape, where white men and women could sexually abuse black boys, girls, men, and women at their whim. As historian Edward Baptist explains in his excellent book “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism,” the “plantation” is more accurately described as a slave labor camp.
Building on archives, personal journals, and the work of African-American historians and other scholars, Constance Sublette and Ned Sublette have compelling demonstrated in their book “American Slave Coast” that the internal slave economy of the United States was fueled by forced slave breeding and other violations of the reproductive rights of black women and men. While there are exciting research tools such as the Voyages slave trade database, there is no full accounting of the tens of millions of black human property who likely died in the forced marches that began in Africa through to the Middle Passage and then from labor, death, and disease across the Americas. The centuries-long institution of white on black chattel slavery across the Black Atlantic was a crime against humanity, the consequences of which still resonate in the present, and for which there has still not been a proper resolution or reckoning.
O’Reilly’s efforts to include “white immigrants” in the story of how black slave labor built the White House is also part of a right-wing political imagination that seeks to remove the unique sin of chattel slavery from American history by doing such things as debating the amount of “calories” and food that white immigrants in the North or Ireland (or Europe more broadly) had access to as compared to black human property. Their logic, however twisted, is that if black slaves had comparable or better diets than white laborers or serfs, then somehow they were more “free” and “happier” than whites of the same “class.” This same sick political imagination rewrites school textbooks to depict black human property as happy “immigrants” to America as opposed to people stolen from their homes and brought thousands of miles to be exploited by white society.
O’Reilly’s comments about the slaves who built the White House are neither innocent nor harmless. They are part of a continuum of white racism that contains the murderous actions of Dylann Roof on one extreme and expands to include the stupidity of right-wing welfare queens such as Cliven Bundy (who thinks that black people were “better off” during slavery and Jim Crow), and the ignorance and denial of those who actually believe that the American Civil War was fought over “states rights” as opposed to protecting forever the ability of whites to own black people as human property.
Bill O’Reilly made a choice to critique Michelle Obama’s relatively benign, neutral, and matter of fact observations about how black American slaves built the White House. For example, during her speech she did not talk about the slaves who were owned by presidents and kept as human property in the White House. Michelle Obama also did not talk about those Presidents of the United States who were slave traders and personally owned hundreds of black human property on their plantations. Michelle Obama made the decision to not speak about Thomas Jefferson, a rapist, who fathered several babies by his slave Sally Hemings. Yet, Michelle Obama’s comments were still found to be problematic by Bill O’Reilly (as well as other right-wing propagandists such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson).
Ultimately, Bill O’Reilly could have remained silent or spoken about another topic in his “Tip of the Day” segment on Tuesday’s edition of the O’Reilly Factor. O’Reilly could have “spun” Michelle Obama’s comments to place them within a right-wing narrative about how the Republican Party is “the Party of Lincoln,” the so-called “natural home” of African-Americans because it freed her ancestors. O’Reilly could have easily defaulted to a story about American Exceptionalism and how Michelle Obama’s history lesson is a reminder of the country’s greatness.
Instead, Bill O’Reilly, like the white men in the Dunning School who chose to willfully distort American history in the service of white supremacy, decided to publicly lecture a black American woman about slavery.
He could not resist the impulse. For at least eight years, Fox News, the broader right-wing news entertainment media, and conservatives more generally have subjected Michelle Obama to an unrelenting assault on her beauty, femininity, competence, intelligence, and comportment. As with Barack Obama, the symbolic power and racial optics of a black woman and her family in the White House as American royalty is too much for many white conservatives (and some others) to accept. The Age of Obama ushered in an era of derangement and mouth frothing rage by white conservatives. O’Reilly’s comments about slavery and the White House are just one more reminder of how Obama derangement syndrome has consumed the Republican Party and the right-wing media.