Unsurprisingly there has been many myths and misconceptions about slavery that have come about over the years, those of which kind of aim to take away from the horrors of American slavery. People have tried to shut down black people complaining about racism by saying that white people were slaves too, or black people enslaved each other in Africa so they should refocus their anger. Probably the worst misconception however, comes from the idea that slaves were well taken care of, as they were given food and a place to stay.
Some even believe that they were better off than some poor white people. This isn’t really true because for one, slaves were seen as property, and were treated as such. They may have been valuable to their master’s pockets, however for most slaveowners, slaves were not viewed as human, meaning that the things provided for them probably weren’t satisfactory and only allowed them to survive. These misconceptions of slavery don’t just fall out of the sky.
American culture has been deeply threaded with ideas of black inferiority due to the social control that slavery provided.
Believing that slaves were happy to be taken care of displays a very paternalistic view, which pertains to actions being taken that limit a person’s or a group of people’s liberty slash autonomy believing that it is essentially for their own good; slaves should be happy to be owned because their slave owners provide a life for them. Now referring back to the idea of slaves being well-fed, it was actually found that American slaveholders would often provide the absolute minimum amounts of food and shelter for enslaved people.
Bill O’reilly made a statement about the wellbeing of slaves who built the white house, saying that they were given “Decent lodgings” and were “well-fed”. Historic Writer, Michael Twitty responded to the statement made by O’reilly, saying “The daily food of enslaved people would have been poor quality scraps and dirty well water. Things like Madeira ham and “Kush,” a lightly sweetened crumbled cornbread, were called ‘Seldom’ in slave culture because they would have only had them a couple of times a year.”
White slaveholders had considered the palates of black people to be less refined than that of white people, so they were often served a monotonous diet consisting of things like pork and cornmeal. To supplement their diets, slaves were expected to tend to their own vegetable gardens or hunt, which was more work on top of the heavy amounts of labor they already dealt with. Because of this many enslaved people suffered from diseases associated with malnutrition, such as pellagra, rickets, scurvy, and anemia. Branching off of the idea of slaves being taken care of, also comes the idea of slaves being happy because their owners took care of their slaves from the kindness of their hearts. The truth is that they only “took-care” of them due to economic interest. According to Greg Timmons, slavery was the economic engine of the south, “With cash crops of tobacco, cotton and sugar cane, America’s southern states became the economic engine of the burgeoning nation. Their fuel of choice? Human slavery.”
Slavery would have allowed the south to become the fourth richest nation in the world by the time the Civil War began if it were separate. The system of slavery was the key in attaining American prosperity. Slaveholders saw their slaves as valuable property who would provide them with riches, so they could care less about making their slaves’ lives comfortable. They would only provide enough that would allow their slaves to be alive and mobile. Even if slaves were in a relatively “good” position- meaning they may have been owned by a slaveholder who was lenient in punishment or fed them decently. They were always subject to being sold, and slaves were sold for any reason, like death, debt, arguments in the family, or just because their slaveholder felt like it. Very few laws regulated slaveholders’ treatment of enslaved people, there would be no guarantee that the next place the enslaved person landed would be comfortable. In the period immediately before and following the Civil War, there were images presented in paintings and illustrations that depicted the old plantation as this orderly paradise where slaves were happy, childlike, and were cared for by their “generous” masters.
Pop-culture stereotypes such as the mammy, the coon, the Sambo and the Tom emerged and went on throughout the 20th century, shown in advertisements (remember Aunt Jemimah and Uncle Ben?), movies, and home décor items like pitchers, salt-and-pepper shakers and lawn ornaments. Blacks were shown as cheerful, subservient “darkies” with bug eyes and big lips (and watermelon probably somewhere in the vicinity). Popular paternalistic depictions like the mammy showed slaves as being faithfully devoted to their masters and being utterly helpless without them. The consistent message was that Blacks were better off under white people’s oversight. During the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras an even more damaging stereotype of black people emerged. They were depicted as savage immoral brutes, seen in films such as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Free black men were presented as predatory rapists who would threaten the purity of white women once out of their shackles, and needed nothing more than to be contained. Slavery was the main event of American History, however it is treated as if it was simply one of the events that occurred, like The American Revolution or the moon landing.
This is why we often see slavery being glossed over in the textbooks and stereotypes being reinforced in the media. People seem to want to pretend this never happened or want to wipe it away and focus on other things, but no matter what, they can’t erase the fact that American slavery affects us even in modern times. Erasing the injustices done in the past to become prestigious is like trying to erase oxygen and hydrogen from the ocean. Slaves being happy couldn’t be further from the truth, seeing how they weren’t that well taken care of for one, and secondly, they didn’t want to be in their owner’s “care” in the first place. They didn’t have a choice but to be in the situation that they were in, contrary to their fellow “white-slaves”, who weren’t actually slaves at all and in fact were indentured servant that weren’t owned by who they worked for, as their labor was temporary. It’s disturbing that even in modern times, a period that is supposed to be “woke”, there are still these misconceptions that exist. Perhaps if people the same amount of effort into reading as they do when they try to convince others that slavery isn’t relevant today, we would be in a much more favorable position as a society.