An open letter to White people who tire of hearing about slavery when they visit slave plantations: especially Suzanne Sherman.

Dear Ms. Sherman,

When I read your reflection in The American Conservative I was so sorry to hear that you had mistaken the museum at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello for a monument to the Declaration of Independence. This mistake clearly caused much despair to you, and I suspect, to your unwitting children, who later found themselves flung headfirst into the depths of their mother’s folly before a crowd of annoyed weekenders. And so, though it was due to your own mistake, I offer you my sympathy and am glad to hear, for the sake of your emotional well-being, that out of the glare of national attention, on a lesser known property, Jefferson’s Poplar Forest estate, you were able to receive the version of history which you most preferred. For the sake of people like you, if it would not be such a terribly expensive endeavor, mental health professionals might find it useful to maintain lovingly bowdlerized versions of historical exhibitions, lest your delicate intellectual constitutions be damaged by being forced to experience history in its full and living palette.

Slavery 1
With apologies to those who had hoped to learn about 19th century fashion.

I am only taking, (should I say seizing?) the liberty of writing to you now, because the accounts which you offer of your continuing misadventures in slavery’s land, lead me to believe that you may be putting yourself in a hopeless position if you continue your historical travels, and I want to take it upon myself to offer you a way out of this place of suffering. After finding yourself jilted at Monticello, you went to Madison’s Montpelier, then to John C. Calhoun’s home in Clemson, South Carolina and then to Peyton Randolph’s home in WIlliamsburg, apparently, still in search of a museum in which to discuss 18th century political theory, all in vain. Your fruitless sojourns lead me to reach out in compassion to explain something which may put an end to them: The preservation of historical homes is done, not to propagate the abstract notions which their owners may have harbored within those walls, but, to preserve for posterity a glimpse into the daily life and domestic situations within which history occurred. Monticello is not a monument to the Declaration of Independence, because there is nothing which one can learn about that document from peering into Jefferson’s kitchen which cannot be better learned from a book. Montpelier does not memorialize The Federalist papers and the Constitution, it relies on the words to memorialize themselves and on careful study, which gives a broader historical and intellectual context, to make their theory live again.

Patrick HenryLiberty or death! Patrick Henry, slaveholder, speaking atop the soapbox of unwitting irony.

It was not America’s founding documents which gave these places daily life, nor the theories of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau which created their domestic situation, Thomas Paine’s pamphleteering did not do the labor and make the profits which made such luxury possible, all this was the work of slavery, or, more precisely, the hundreds of enslaved West African men, women and children which your founding fathers forcibly held in bondage.

MontpelierA Virginia slave labor camp.

I am the descendant of those people. My mother’s people slaved in South Carolina, my father’s in Georgia. As of now, I know nothing else concrete about them. I do know, that if you had visited any of these stately homes in their heyday, you would have seen far more slaves than free people. A uniformed Black man would have taken your coat and cordially led you deeper into the recesses of the place. You would have seen men and women of all ages, impeccably uniformed, hurrying to and fro, forced by the existential threat of violence, to attend to your comfort. If you had just stood still, you might have gone minutes, even hours, without seeing another White face. Madison had a wife and one son, which means that when the Madison family was home “alone,” if you exclude the one White overseer he employed and the overseer’s family who also lived on the estate, as many as 98% of the people living at Montpelier at any time were enslaved Africans. Which means, that while the story of Madison’s presidency and his intellectual contributions to the nation’s founding are his; the story of Montpelier is the story of its slaves.
I imagine that story may not mean much to you. You seem to want to treat it as being no more worthy of discussion than the wallpaper in Calhoun’s bedroom. But, as their descendant, I have no choice but to know that they were human beings, as I am a human being, with births and deaths as miraculous and tragic as any that ever were, with lives as filled with laughter and tears, loves and hates, aspirations and fears as any human lives. The inner mysteries of these enslaved souls were as great as the chasm between this world and the one beyond. The stealing of a single one of their lives, much less hundreds, is a crime of striking magnitude, which therefore makes up the most important story these buildings can tell. But on this, we disagree. I imagine you would be very disappointed by a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the 1.5 million Jews and Gentiles killed there are distracting from the all-important discussion of Mein Kampf and Hitler’s lackluster painting career. You probably think the Gallic war is the story of Julius Caesar’s trip to France, not thousands of Romans subjugating thousands of Gauls. You probably think the history of America’s Gilded Age is the story of how Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Morgan made and spent their wealth, and not the story of men, women and children who had lived their lives in fiery iron dungeons, sweating to make the gilding. You would probably call the stories I suggest: revisionist history, no, it is history given vision, history which shows us the world as it really was, so we can see it as it really is.

Old MadisonJames Madison, the purveyor of the above slave labor camp, his face withered by years of brutality.

You argue that had Madison freed his slaves, they likely would have starved, which I find to be an odd way of looking at things. Let us imagine the more quotidian aspects of James’s life, the life of a typical Virginia slaveholder. When he was born, he was likely to have been delivered by an enslaved midwife, after hers and his mother’s, the next arms to cradle the small, sickly, pale child would have been those of an enslaved Black wet nurse. From her body, he would have drawn the elixir of life, via the same mother’s milk which founded the strength of her own children, who would serve him all his days. Every stitch of clothing which would ever touch his body for the majority of his life, would be made by enslaved seamstresses and, after the boy was weaned, every bite of food he would ever eat at home would have been prepared by an enslaved cook, from food which was either raised or paid for by the slaves who did everything else for him, in his father’s house, which slaves built and then in the White House, which slaves also built. James’s first playmates would have been children too young to work, but still slaves, as he would learn when told of the immutable line which divided him from the people whose suffering and toil made up the very substance of his body. As James grew older, he might have, if it pleased him, seen fit to seize his first bit of carnal knowledge from the body of one of his wet nurse’s daughters. When he went away for the schooling which his family paid for with the wages of theft, a slave boy about his age went with him, to keep him from any acquaintance with the slightest labor. And it was with this education that his slaves paid for, that James rose through the ranks of the Virginia aristocracy to sire a constitution and lead a nation. And when James’s frail body finally gave way, it would have been lowered into a grave dug by enslaved men, in a coffin made by the enslaved people who had been carrying him all his life.

slavery 2With apologies to those who wanted to learn about the role of rope in 18th century shipping.

Though Madison, like several of the nation’s most politically prominent slaveholders, agonized over the issue of what was to be done with the African slaves on which they depended, he never allowed his to go free; not because he was afraid that without him to carry around they might starve, but because he feared, quite logically, that without captives to carry the burden of his life, he, as a man accustomed to luxury and knowing no trade but politician, would starve.

You therefore have the matter exactly backwards. In death, the moral weight of this decision cannot even rely on the fictions of acolytes like yourself to support it. Though you valiantly tried when you said that manumitting slaves was illegal in Virginia, when, in fact, the Virginia legislature legalized manumission in 1782. Though for most people, it would go without saying, that whether it was illegal to free his slaves or not, this in no way bears on Madison’s guilt, as the one who actively held slaves. I am therefore as sorry that the tour guides could not correct your misinformation, as I am that they were unable to correct the several of your follies which I have striven to correct here.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOKERA: CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND: SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISMThough parted from his rural home, these signs of his master’s benevolence he shall carry the rest of his days.

To return us to the matter of starvation: As far as I know, there is no record of any mass starvation associated with the manumission of American slaves, though four million were freed at once by an act of congress in 1865. And, I can attest, that though my family has been free 151 years, in all that time, free of vicious little men like James Madison to carry about, we may have hungered, but we have never starved! My people work. They have earned the entirety of their substance in fields and factories, in classrooms and law offices and as soldiers of the United States. An honorable, clean way of living which all your founding slavers avoided by resorting to lives of gentrified brutality.

This is the history of the American South, which you, not being from this region, might find it convenient to avoid, but which you have no right to expect the nation as a whole to avoid, so that you might miss it while staring it square in the face. Moreover, as it is the history of the material foundations of the United States of America, it is the only history you have this side of the Atlantic.

V. R. Bradley

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270 thoughts on “An open letter to White people who tire of hearing about slavery when they visit slave plantations: especially Suzanne Sherman.

  1. so nicely said . I like the detailed prose and that is the history. I promote that more Historical Markers be placed in USA – everywhere is Black ‘involvement’ that created this fine country. thank you.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Freedom Plaza comes to mind. In the heart of the United States in the District of Columbia there is no statue that can be seen every day of the Slave Market across the street from National Theater. They covered it over and call it Freedom Plaza but there is barely a plackard, much less a statue of a man, woman, or child being sold into bondage every single day until 1885 within steps of the White House built by their labor. We see nothing unless one digs deep. A professor of mine at Howard University School of Divinity is trying to correct that, one student at a time. Dr. Harrison is making every effort to tear down the wall of ignorance.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m sorry, but Ms. Sherman’s attitude is exactly what one expects from Utah. It wasn’t that long ago (in the past 20 years or so) they were trying to make it an all white state. Let them have it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Letting “them” have it would be too much of a reward. They’re not alone on this planet and don’t get to say “This is ours; everyone else keep out.” That way lies capitulation to intolerance. They don’t get to be that greedy without consequence.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Your eloquent letter highlights that humanity is not always humane and there are people in utter denial. They prefer the romanticized version, thus their dreams are to marry Rhett Butler.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Yeah, what can say more about American society than the fact that the first talking picture was about a White man in blackface (The Jazz Singer) and that highest grossing film of all time was an apologia for slavery (Gone with the Wind) and that the film it displaced was a silent film glorifying the KKK (Birth of a Nation.)

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Just to let you know, I’m a white woman who welcomed the slave exhibits at Monticello because they do help tell the true history of the plantation and the era. It’s a hard truth, but it should be told.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Slavery has always been being exported to what we call the “third world” the vast majority of the Africans brought to the Americas went to South America and the Caribbean and, of course, the enslaved people themselves were being taken from Africa, also part of the “third world” and then, Africa was colonized most heavily once European nations found themselves excluded from the most productive areas of the Western hemisphere and after slavery had ended. This is by no means a new phenomenon.


  5. I especially liked the “soapbox of unwitting irony” caption. Thank you from another white woman who found her way here via Facebook and shared this letter forthwith. I’m actually German by birth. I was adopted and eventually brought the the US by a father born the youngest of 8 to cotton-picking sharecroppers in Arkansas in 1929 (his notion of the “black experience” was discussed often in our home). But never mind that because no matter how gentle I may try to be, it seems possible that sometime—in my bloodline, as perhaps in most everyone’s—some ancestor of mine enslaved some other person, and likely brutally so … though perhaps not as wholesale and for the direct benefit of so few, as was the American slavery agenda. My experience with plantation visits as a youth were the white-washed kind. Since I live 2.5 hours from Monticello, I will now make point of having a future visit so my eyes can be further opened to the injustice that existed. I will be taking my step-daughter. This letter was a damned good start down that road.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. This white person, who although a Spanish teacher, earned a masters in US history in my 50’s, only got interested in history when we stopped the glorification of the founding fathers and begin talking about the larger picture of our complex nation. Last summer I finally went to Monticello, I was thrilled to find out that the entire Mulberry Row, the life blood of the plantation, will be re-created with a new 14 million dollar grant. Visitors will be able to see how many enslaved peoples, along with some free laborers were required to operate the facility and they will see exactly what existed in Jefferson’s time. Twenty one years ago there was no mention of enslaved peoples at Monticello at all, it was as if the plantation thrived by the power of Jefferson himself! No mention of Sally Hemings, his dead wife’s half sister who he lived with for well over 30 years and fathered 6 children, the only enslaved people he ever freed. Now their stories are taught along with Jefferson’s, and we are a better, more informed nation. I look forward to seeing the Museum of African American History take its place on our great National Mall. My advice to all Americans is learn our history, the good, the bad and the ugly. It is tough, but fascinating, and challenge yourself to be the best citizen you can be!

    Liked by 7 people

  7. As a British white working class woman I could not visit a plantation on my trip to the southern states for the reasons you describe. The dressed up ‘southern belles’ made me feel sick. I can’t watch that stupid film ‘Gone with the Wind’ for the same reason.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. I am re-reading the book “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and your letter is a perfect rebuttal to the white washing and herofication of American leaders. These men did truly important things for our country, but we need to show a balanced portrait of them for history to be fully understood.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Great nations are known by their history. So profound, it’s the blood of these men and women who gave us this awesome country. Salute.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post! I wish that more white people would wake up. Beyond what you have written here, white privilege is a “thing”, and white people need to get the hell over it.

    Liked by 5 people

  11. In times when we are still fighting the legacies of slavery and racism, I find this letter very helpful. If I ever run into one of these people and am forced to listen to their viewpoints, I’ll try to remember the arguments you put forth. Maybe it’ll shut them up, and even get them to think about their own positions.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Those who ignore history is bound to repeat it. Sweeping unpleasant things under the rug doesn’t make them go away. It simply creates an unsightly lump in the middle of a beautiful rug. That’s what happening with those who do not wish to hear about the evils of slavery when it effects are still alive today.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Beautiful … history as told by the soul and spirit of the tipuna (ancestors), carried by their moko (grandchildren) … the real history…not that which was written by the ‘conqueror’.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I have not delved deep, but have gone back and forth on my thoughts. The movie “Roots” was shocking, yet I was also surprised to see photos of “happy slaves” in the days where people were archiving everything on the internet. Some photos, such as the man holding one leg of a baby simply don’t make sense, but that is a small detail in the scale of the larger picture. I have also noticed that there are many blacks in the healthcare service fields. I wonder if some of this dates back through the generations. I have also been reading about the founding of the small New England town that I was born in, and even though slaves were not a part of the picture, it was clear that nobility, english heritage and “yankee stock” was an assumed “non-working” class of people – although I’m not sure who would have been their workers. The term “grammar school” itself now seems unusually odd when farming was the culture, and yet some were more focused on poetry, even at that early pioneering stage. Thank you for this wonderful piece of writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Very well written and thought out. You have the ability to place the reader into your narrative, which is very engaging. Very alive and present.

    However, when I read these treatises directed at white guilt responses- I always wonder: is the writer active and aware if the current repression of rights?

    Does the writer care, for instance, that DHS fusion centers monitor people- activists of all colors- in order to create ‘cases’ from whole cloth; cases that can lead to incarceration of people of ALL COLORS?

    Does the writer move forward from a completely ahistorical narrative- one that ignores religious influences of several relugions- comprised of several races? Or: tribal cinflucts in Afruca, the downfall of kingdoms like Mali and Niger that led to tribes selling off their own race?

    Because in adopting the racist perspective instead of the class perspective- the slippery slope of encouraging the next great slavery event is at hand; and encouraging white guilt and disenfranchisement certainly wins few allies for the battles ahead, much less the ones close at hand.

    NSA wiretaps, fusion centers, hidden law enforcement tools and methods- criminal cases that start because of a Tweet on Twitter should cause a pause; the dividing of us from them- this is all of our battle here, now, today.

    I’m not sure that I need to reflect on how some 200 years ago lived, unless it includes discussion about how chained together we all are today; and an fight a common tactic of slavers- the divide and conquer narrative.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you don’t want to reflect on how someone lived 200 years ago, you would probably not be visiting former plantation homes to begin with. If I may quote myself: “It is history with vision, history which shows us the world as it really was so we can see it as it really is.” I am not a history buff who studies history for the pure enjoyment, I do so because it gives me the contest for a broad understanding of the present. That includes racism, class, culture, gender oppression, the structure of international cooperation and anything else to which the current order can be attributed. I can’t imagine what I could possibly have said to lead you to think me as narrow-minded as you seem to have presumed.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Hm. If I thought u were narrow minded I would have told you so. And- I have never visited one of those places or intend to.

        But you also likely don’t know that many white people laugh at and deride those same attractions- because they don’t represent us in any way.

        So while I understand your writing on that level- and I noted it was well written- I don’t understand anyone who speaks to me as a ‘race’.

        It’s not a matter of ‘white privilege’ to choose this- it is a matter of it being something I didn’t choose. Like you, even I or whites in general are trapped in mythical and false narratives that presume things; or ask our submission to them.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t speak to races, I speak to social conditions. Talking to me about how speaking on White Supremacy offends your sense of individuality, as though racism hasn’t been robbing non-Whites of individuality for centuries, is the height of majoritarian narcissism. When a White person commits a crime and you have to sincerely worry about whether people are going to start treating you differently, even though you’ve never gotten so much as a speeding ticket, then speak to me. Being trapped in the big house is not the same thing as being trapped in the fields. And, if you sincerely want out of White Supremacy, work against White Supremacy, because I have no intention of varying the conduct of my social survival in order to play to your sense of individuality. P.S. when I say work against White Supremacy, I don’t just mean, don’t say “racist” things and call out people who say “racist” things; I mean advocate for and support policies that will erode the power of ideological Whiteness in society.

        Liked by 4 people

      3. All I can say to that- is : you din’t know me. And : I work against ALL SUPREMACY.

        Your implicit race-based othering rhetoric is certainly not useful, and it belies either a gap in your understanding, or a deliberate racism and a nascent supremacy in yourself.

        I have been shot, shot at, jailed and released more times than any black person I know. I have been profiled as much or more than any I know.

        Here: have a look:

        So- your dismissive swipe at my ‘entitled’ individuality is not only innacurate and sorely misplaced, but also short sighted. The EXACT allies you need are those who have endured the conditions of which you speak- and othering me/them is in fact, most likely the only way you can posit your own sense of the supreme.

        Not all whites have or have ever had these privileges if which you speak, and replacing one supremacist pisition with another is bad religion.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. I never claimed to know you. Since we’re discussing White Supremacy, I’m glad to hear that you work against White Supremacy. I don’t see how anything I have said can be considered “race based othering rhetoric” except by someone who disagrees with my expressed goals. I don’t see what your personal travails in comparison to however many Black people you happen to know has to do with anything, especially with me. I don’t believe I used the word ‘entitled.’ I did use the phrase, majoritarian narcissism, which was in no way a commentary on your life or how you choose to live it: As you have so helpfully informed me, I do not in fact know you, I know your comments and it is they which, shrouded in my ignorance concerning everything else about you, I have chosen to address. Insofar as allies are useful, it is because they, at the very least, have more perception than to come bothering me with their pseudo-problems in the name of some adolescent notion of “individuality.” I am an individual, yes, I am also an American, if someone from another country speaks to me about what Americans do or America does, I will accept that criticism as an American and say that I either oppose or support what they are referring to (the chances are better than even that I oppose it.) I will not, however, crow about how his critique of America and Americans offends my individuality, because, I am not a child. I understand that individuality exists in the context of collectives and that we can benefit from the collectives to which we belong at the expense of others who suffer due to their own collective memberships. Crowing at me about your individuality when I had no idea that you existed 48 hours ago seems so far aside from any actual point that I am only continuing to engage you out of curiosity as to what the point could possibly be. I would ask if you were under the impression that I was clairvoyant and expected me to include you somewhere as an exception, except, I don’t recall making any blanket statements about White people. Which only contributes to my confusion as to your point. Moreover, in your last comment, you mentioned that I was probably not aware that there are White people who laugh at and deride the attractions I mention. I don’t know what could possibly lead you to presume so much, but I am very aware that White people are not of one mind on these plantations, which is why my piece is titled as it is.

        Liked by 2 people

      5. Brother- there are a lot of me’s in the collective. And if you missed the point, that’s on you.

        It was your rhetoric- heavily embellished with race bait and othering traps imbued with your own narcissism that spoilt any notion of you NOT having a supremacist idea of ‘collective voice’ when you employed classic ‘you/me’ language structure.

        I responded further down the chain as well- your comments came to my feed late.


  16. But, but, but – how can you deny me my sweet nostalgia of the “Good Ol’ Days”? Looking at the past with blinders (or worse with rose-tinted googles) is a useless endeavour. Great text….

    Liked by 3 people

  17. Powerful! I was just at Monticello for the Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row Tour. The guide did not evade the uncomfortable truth and answered the many difficult questions. The most profound effect it had on me was the recognition of the devastating effect this kind of abuse has on people (even now) and yet the spirit of dignity and survival that shines through. I hope to read more of this excellent writing.

    Liked by 3 people

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