Over at Vox, a white woman who until recently was a tour guide at a historic Southern plantation recounts some . . . interesting questions she got from the mostly white tourists she encountered over the years, some of whom had jaw-dropping ideas of what slavery was really like.
Margaret Biser is behind the Twitter account @AfAmHistFail — that is, African American History Fail — where she’s been documenting these conversations for some time. In her essay, she writes about visitors who insisted on portraying slave owners as benevolent paternalists who generously “took care” of their slaves:
“‘These were house slaves, so they must have had a pretty all right life, right?'” is a phrase I heard again and again. Folks would ask me if members of the enslaved household staff felt “fortunate” that they “got to” sleep in the house or “got to” serve a politically powerful owner.
Relatedly, many guests seemed to think that the only reason to seek liberation from household slavery was if you were being beaten or abused. A large part of the house tours I gave was narratives of men and women who dared to attempt escape from it, and so many museum visitors asked me, in all earnestness and surprise, why those men and women tried to escape: “They lived in a nice house here, and they weren’t being beaten. Do we know why they wanted to leave?” These folks were seeing the evil of slavery primarily as a function of the physical environment and the behavior of individual slaveowners, not as inherent to the system itself.
Biser explains that a big part of her job was to help people imagine what life was like for the enslaved population that labored on its grounds. But she came to realize that many visitors “don’t expect to hear too much about slavery while they’re there.”
Their surprise isn’t unjustified: Relatively speaking, the move toward inclusive history in museums is fairly recent, and still underway. And as the recent debates over the Confederate flag have shown, as a country we’re still working through our response to the horrors of slavery, even a century and a half after the end of the Civil War.
Biser says that while some tourists came clearly interested in learning, others were aggressively hostile. She recounts some of these interactions in the full piece, which is well worth a read.