Why Does America Romanticize Slavery?
From Gone With the Wind to a controversial marriage pledge, this nation can't kick its addiction to Old Dixie.
Gone With the Wind nostalgia -- the idea that slaves lived worry-free and were benighted, childlike people who needed looking after -- may be fading. But the resilience of the whitewash is evident in costumed celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and its Lost Cause. When I embarked on a journey of Confederate-heritage groups a few years ago, the descendants of slave owners all insisted, of course, that "their" ancestors treated slave property like "members of the family."
What drew me to take a look at Ingleside, the stately property on the National Register of Historical Places? A friend -- a little surprised and a lot upset -- showed me the advertisement for its sale. She took to Facebook to express her "outrage" and to say that she told the real estate agent, "I found it offensive and insensitive as an African American." My husband and I were curious.
Though I share my friend's heritage, it wasn't outrage I felt but profound sadness as I realized that the history of this house, constructed in 1817, mirrors America's own -- with its lovingly preserved mansion alongside a crumbling slave house. It's a history of privilege and neglect.
The inhabitants of one building lived free lives in Lincoln County, N.C., in a home "known far and wide for its hospitality," the essay says. "A golden stream of prosperity flowed into the coffers of the fortunate owners of all this." They passed their good fortune down, something that was not possible for those who worked there, not for pay but for survival.
I am glad that the real estate ad mentions them, if only as a footnote. (To see the words "slave quarters" is jarring, but you can't exactly describe it as a guesthouse for the guests who couldn't leave.)
It is U.S. history, as is all that happened in the house after Maj. Forney and his descendants gave way to other owners, such as a former North Carolina legislator pictured in a photo on the wall, in a seat of power with John F. Kennedy and Terry Sanford. It is a history with slow but steady progress for the ancestors of those in the other house, quickened by the actions and sacrifice of many of them.
Today I really could move into the big house, though at the $3 million asking price, the next owner won't be me (insert journalism-salary joke here). My family does live in a home in a lovely Charlotte neighborhood where some deeds still include the now unenforceable racial restriction that "this lot shall be owned and occupied by people of the Caucasian race only," written by the original developers. As I told NPR when that story made news and some in the community wanted the wording removed, "I think people should know that history -- and it's not that long ago."
If Ingleside were mine, I would be sure to include the tumbledown shack on any grand tour, a monument to those who built this country and a rebuke to those who would disrespect them with fairy tales.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and the Nieman Watchdog blog. She was national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.