Yes, African Slaves Had Built the White House! So What?
Toward a More Inclusive American Narrative and Democratic Experiment
In her recent speech at the Democratic National Convention delivered on Tuesday, July 26, 2016, the first lady, Michelle Obama, has said publicly that African slaves had built the White house in which she, her husband, President Barack Hussein Obama, and their two daughters Sasha and Malia Obama (a black family), now live. How cool is that? Well, many Americans were not happy about the affirmation of black achievement in American history; some have even questioned the historical credibility of Michelle’s statement; some have even called it a racist attitude, or as we like to call it she is playing “the race card.”
First of all, enslaved Africans in the Americas did not enjoy the mistreatment of slavery and the racial violence and death they endured under this cruel and inhumane system. Secondly, the majority of enslaved population in the Americas did not earn any wage for their (unpaid) labor. John Hope Franklin who has written prolifically about the dialectic of slavery and freedom in American (Black) history has observed, “It is an exciting story, a remarkable story. It is the story of slavery and freedom, humanity and inhumanity, democracy and denial. It is tragedy and triumph, suffering and compassion, sadness and joy” (“The New Negro History,” The Crisis, February 1977). Thirdly, in the case of Saint-Domingue-Haiti, for example, African slaves emancipated themselves in 1804 from the yoke of European enslavement, European domination and rule, and from slavery as an institution that degraded and desecrated human life and black lives, in this case. The little country of Haiti, about the size of Maryland, would become the second independent country in the Americas (The United States of America is the first independent nation-state) and the first Black Republic in the Western world. Through the watershed event historians now call The Haitian Revolution (1791-1803), enslaved Africans had made significant and transformative contributions to global history of human emancipation, human rights, democracy, antislavery protest, etc. Fourthly, enslaved Africans in Latin America had also contributed to the freedom and independence of the constituted nation-states in Latin America from the yoke of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism.
Yes, African slaves did build the White house. Some of the historic buildings and splendid architectures in the United States of America were also built by enslaved Africans, which may include the U.S. Capitol, the homes and estates of several US presidents, railways, major American forts, main public works, bridges and seawalls, etc. (For more information, see “5 American Structures Existing Today Built By Slave Labor,” http://atlantablackstar.com/2014/02/27/5-american-structures-existing-today-built-slave-labor/; “The White House Was, in Fact, Built by Slaves,”/www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/white-house-was-fact-built-slaves-180959916/#rjumaeL35U62DM1S.99 ; “The legend of slaves building Capitol is correct,” http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2009/jan/19/nancy-pelosi/legend-slaves-building-capitol-correct/)
The United States has also graced the world with the presence and achievements of black inventors; some of the major ones include Charles Drew, Pioneer of the Modern Blood Bank; Daniel Hale Williams, Pioneer of Open Heart Surgery; Elijah McCoy, Inventor of the Automatic Lubricator; Fred Jones, Developed Refrigeration System for Trucks; Garrett Morgan, Inventor of a Traffic Signal and Gas Mask; George Washington Carver, Invented Thousand of Uses for the Peanut; Jan Matzeliger, Invented an Automated Shoe; Lewis Latimer, Invented an Improved Light Bulb; Madam C.J. Walker, Created a Black Hair Products Empire; Percy Julian, Pioneer in the Field of Synthetic Chemistry; Benjamin Banneker, Astronomy who Developed an Almanac; Ernest Just, Pioneer in Marine Biology and Zoology; Granville Woods, Telegraph and Railway Device Developer; George Carruthers, Measuring and Detected Ultraviolet Lights, etc. (for more information on this topic, see http://blackinventor.com/) . In addition, on a different note but of equal importance the Haitian immigrant Jean Baptiste Point du Sable is the founder of the city of Chicago. Free black soldier, former slaves from Saint-Domingue-Haiti, have also lost their lives in the US War of Independence for the cause of American democracy and freedom; enslaved Africans from Saint-Domingue also stirred black revolt leading to the American civil war and the emancipation of African slaves in the United States of America.
Enslaved Africans have also contributed enormously to America’s wealth and success in the modern world through their unpaid labor, blood, and death. Africans have also made monumental contributions to universal civilizations. They have made (continue to strive) America and Europe better societies in which the triumph of Western democracy and the fulfillment of its promises could be inclusive and open-ended. We must always remember that Black American achievement is also American achievement; Black American contributions to universal civilization is also American contributions to human civilization; Black history is nothing but a subset of American history.
To admit the various ways that Africans and people of African descent in the Diaspora have contributed to world’s democracy, human emancipation, economic capitalism, and human rights issues will not undermine but complement white American-European history or the historical achievements of non-White American-European people in the world. This is nothing but a first step in acknowledging the dignity and humanity of black folk. Yes, that will also help lessen the power of white supremacy in human history, the myth of the white race, and racial arrogance in global history. The spirit of superiority is parallel to an attitude of arrogance, and a serious threat to human flourishing, partnership, and collaboration in this thing we call life. To avow that my white friend little Johnny has helped me in college to pass my mathematics class is to encourage human partnership and friendship.
A pivotal aspect of the conversation about confronting the meaning of black existence in the American society also entails the recognition and affirmation of the historic contributions and achievements of black and African American people to the American civilization and democracy. Until we also assert that Black people and their ancestors have also made significant contributions to the American society and force the American government to actualize the American ideals into practical life circumstances to all Americans, we will not move a step forward toward a more promising democratic life and justice, racial healing and reconciliation in America.
The history of the American people is not a white history, as many Americans are taught to believe in their history class; it is certainly not a monolithic narrative about the achievements of white European people in America or in human history. The greatness of the American narrative and democratic experiment also involves the enormous contributions and historical legacies of non-white American people such as enslaved Africans, brown Americans, yellow Americans, and white Americans, what have you?
We must also admit that Americans of different color and racial shades, of various cultural practices and traditions, and of different ethnic backgrounds—white, brown, black, yellow, and others—have collaborated to build this great nation. They continue to do so together to realize a more promising American democratic life for the good of all people in America and the world at large. While the worth of the political nation-state in the modern world is measured by its historic accomplishments and unrelenting strive to promote the democratic life, justice, and peace for all its citizens, as well as political stability and the protection of human life against both internal and external forces, the worth of a racial group, ethnic group , or an individual should never be assessed by his or her achievements in society or life. The dignity and worth of a person lies in the mere fact that both man and woman, male and female are created in the Image of God to the glorious praise of the Triune and Eternal God.