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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Historic PR Spin on Slavery: Colonial Williamsburg’s Website Dumbs Down Slavery

As a publicist, I am akin to spin. It is part of my profession and I usually do not fault a little spin, where appropriate. But after reading the spin on slavery on the Colonial Williamsburg official website , as an African American- I am in utter disgust.

I was planning a visit to Virginia and began researching Williamsburg. What I found was shocking. What we know as a horrific time for African-Americans in colonial times is characterized in a very odd manner on the Colonial Williamsburg website. To my horror, I stumbled upon the heading “Introduction to Colonial Life for African Americans.” Firstly, this makes the life for African Americans in those times sound very dignified. To even call it colonial life is a joke. Slaves had no lives – their lives were that of their slave masters. It wasn’t colonial life – it was colonial oppression. This section title alone put me on edge.

But it gets worse.

As I read this eloquently spun prose, I am learning some very eyebrow raising things about slavery. One thing is that there were advantages to colonial slaves. FYI - the words “advantages” and “slaves” should never be in the same sentence. Well it seems that field slaves had minor advantages over house or “urban” slaves. Here is Colonial Williamsburg’s spin:

“For slaves working on farms, the work was a little less tedious than tobacco cultivation, but no less demanding. The variety of food crops and livestock usually kept slaves busy throughout the year. Despite the difficult labor, there were some minor advantages to working on a plantation or farm compared to working in an urban setting or household. Generally, slaves on plantations lived in complete family units, their work dictated by the rising and setting of the sun, and they generally had Sundays off.”

“Complete family units?” “Sundays off?” Are you kidding me? Firstly, slaves who had SOME of their family with them were always threatened to be separated if they tried to break free OR did something to annoy the slave master, like report sexual abuse. Working sun up until sundown is no picnic – so how is that an advantage? The average person today begins work at least 2 1/2 hours after sunrise. Their “work” day was not easy.

To be fair they do mention disadvantages:
“The disadvantages, however, were stark. Plantation slaves were more likely to be sold or transferred than those in a domestic setting. They were also subject to brutal and severe punishments, because they were regarded as less valuable than household or urban slaves.”

Stop the madness.

All slaves were slaves in colonial times. All slaves were subject to abuse and there was very little preferential treatment. Yes, a house slave may have worn nicer clothing (because they were around their master’s guests and family) but they were not treated like gold. One misstep and they would be beat or thrown out to the fields. House slaves probably psychologically felt superior to field slaves – but they were all on the same level.

This is priceless – the story goes on to explain how “urban” and “domestic” slaves were better off than field slaves:

“Urban and domestic slaves usually dressed better, ate better food, and had greater opportunity to move about in relative freedom. They also were go-betweens for field slaves and the owners. They were privy to a great deal of information discussed in the "big house." They knew everything from the master's mood to the latest political events. The marketplace became the communal center, the place for "networking." At the marketplace, slaves would exchange news and discuss the well-being of friends and loved ones. They often aided runaways, and they kept a keen ear to those political events that might have had an impact on their lives. Regardless of a slave's occupation, there was considerable fear and angst caused by an environment of constant uncertainty and threats of violence and abuse.

Slaves networking – that is an interesting spin. If slaves were able to be off the plantation – they were still being closely watched. Their conversations were most certainly being overheard and they were desperately scheming to break free. I guess networking is a decent way to put it – but it is too positive. My favorite reference is “regardless of a slave’s occupation.” Occupation? According to Webster’s occupation means “"an activity serving as ones regular employement." Slaves were not EMPLOYED - they were slaves. This website’s characterization is totally ridiculous. “Threats of violence and abuse” Threats? Slaves were more than threatened – they were consistently abused, mistreated and on many occassions - killed.

I understand that Colonial Williamsburg is now essentially a business and a tourist trap. But there is no need to re-write history using questionable verbiage that clearly undermines the integrity of our history.

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1 comment:

Cathlyn Driscoll said...

I agree with your assessment. The toning down of slavery is pure gloss, and it's not pretty.