When I was in 3rd grade I read the book To Be a Slave for the first time. The book is a compilation of narratives from former slaves, collected during the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers Project. It was probably the first time I had interacted with a realistic, unvarnished portrayal of slavery. I felt physically uncomfortable reading the stories of whippings or auctions as they described a world of physical punishment and commodification that was, obviously, so foreign to me. I really grasped on to the stories that told of “kind” slave owners or ones who had exhibited unusual leniency in teaching their slaves to read or write. Holding on to these few narratives helped my 8 year old brain to deal with the overwhelming cruelty of slavery by convincing myself that “it wasn’t always that bad”. This, of course, isn’t true and just by nature of owning slaves and reducing human beings to property these slave owners engaged in an exorbitant cruelty.
I was reminded of this type of historical mental editing this week when I read an article on an escaped slave of George Washington. The article unpacks a common myth that Washington was a kind slave owner with doubts about the institution and tells the story of his many, and sometimes illegal, attempts at recapturing an escaped slave who evaded him. I had always learned about the complicated relationship between the founding fathers and slavery in a way that was fairly flattering toward people like Washington and Jefferson: they were products of their time who had misgivings about slavery as an institution; Jefferson and Sally Hemmings really loved each other; Washington was kind to his slaves. However, in reality: despite their misgivings they still owned slaves for the entirety of their lifetimes; Jefferson raped 16 year old Sally; and Washington broke laws to go after his escaped slaves. It can be so uncomfortable to reconcile these almost mythological characters and the contributions they made to our country with the reality of their racism. It’s human nature for white Americans to want to keep these historical figures on their pedestals and search for signs that they too recognized the wrongs of slavery. We want to think that they aren’t like these cartoonish depictions of evil slave owners we see on TV and in film. It’s much more difficult to consider that most slave owners were not obvious villains but looked and acted like people we know.