On this dayJul 26, 2016

Michelle Obama Widely Criticized for Saying White House "Built by Slaves"

Image | White House Historical Association

First Lady Michelle Obama was met with public backlash the day after she gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention truthfully acknowledging the history of American slavery. Reflecting on our national history, Mrs. Obama remarked during her July 25th speech:  "The story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation” she explained, “is the story of striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”

Some Republican officials immediately responded to Mrs. Obama's comments with derision on social media, in some cases even questioning the accuracy of the claim that enslaved people built the White House. One conservative blog remarked that Mrs. Obama’s statement showed “the disdain she has for America,” while commentator Michelle Malkin accused Mrs. Obama of “stretch[ing] the truth.” FOX News television host Bill O’Reilly admitted the statement was fact, but insisted, “slaves that worked [at the White House] were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.” Indeed, the White House Historical Association itself confirmed that, when construction on the White House began in 1792, enslaved Black people were among the laborers made to dig the building’s foundation and chop stone for the walls. 

Though shrouded as questions of facts, the objections to Mrs. Obama’s references to the difficult and painful history of American slavery were actually an attempt to avoid the truth rather than reveal it. And they are part of a deeply-rooted tradition, dating back to Emancipation, that has sought to deny slavery's brutality and reimagine the inhumane institution as benign and defensible.

Soon after the Civil War, Confederate veterans and their supporters sought to recast the war as a noble fight for states’ rights that had nothing to do with slavery. They also tried to insist that enslaved people were happy, loyal, and content. In reality, evidenced by plentiful first-person narratives left behind by Black people who lived through the ordeal, American slavery was always dehumanizing and barbaric, and often bloody, brutal, and violent. Individuals and institutions who today continue to deny these perpetuate the historical effort to deny Black humanity.

An article by The New York Times was published the day after Mrs. Obama's speech highlighting the public backlash. 

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