This year’s Republican and Democratic National Conventions yielded an unexpected takeaway: Most Americans don’t know much about slavery.
On the latest episode of her MTV web series Decoded, comedian and activist Franchesca Ramsey highlighted the unfortunate tendency many Americans have to ignore or erase the role slavery played in the country’s past.
"We talk about race a lot on this show," Ramsey said. "But thanks to our current election cycle, apparently we have to go back to the beginning to shed some light on the myths people use to justify slavery."
After Michelle Obama’s DNC speech about her historical legacy as the first black first lady "living in a house built by slaves," slavery fact-checking ensued. The first lady’s statement checked out.
But the fact that people tried to suggest otherwise shows just how little many Americans know about an institution that defined the country at its inception, and how that ignorance prevents us from taking an honest look at the country’s horrific past.
In response, Ramsey broke down five of the most common excuses used for slavery.
1) "Slaves were well-fed"
After the first lady tried to use her DNC speech to show that her time in the White House demonstrated how far racial progress in America has come, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly decided to use her moment to put a positive spin on slavery itself.
The following day, O’Reilly challenged Obama on The O’Reilly Factor, saying "slaves were well-fed." Then, after a backlash, he defended his statement by clarifying that slaves’ diet consisted of "meat, bread, and other staples."
Ramsey cited other common arguments that parallel O’Reilly’s, like the idea that some slave masters treated slaves well or that being a slave who worked in the big house was at least better than working outside in the fields.
But, as Ramsey noted, "this argument is immaterial, as in it doesn’t matter."
No matter their housing or food, the inherent problem with slavery is the fact that people were slaves in the first place, which is only compounded by the ways Africans were taken from their countries of origin and transported to an unknown place against their will where no one was required to muster even an ounce of recognition of their humanity.
"If aliens abducted your brother, sister, and favorite uncle, and stuck a feeding tube down their throats, while forcing them to build their emperor’s house, would you think, ‘Well at least the aliens fed my family’?" Ramsey asked on Decoded. "I don’t think so."
2) Slaves were happy to have work
Slaves may have had many excruciating jobs, including building much of America. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to equate slavery with employment.
"Newsflash: Although you might hate your job, slavery isn’t employment," Ramsey said. "It wasn’t voluntary, and it has no comparison to working at a job."
But even textbook publishers fail to get this fact straight.
Last October, McGraw-Hill Education came under fire after Roni Dean-Burren, the mother of a high school freshman in Texas, shared a photo of immigration patterns in her son’s geography textbook that said the slave trade "brought millions of workers" to the US through slavery from 1500s to the 1800s. But "workers" and slaves are not at all the same thing.
On Decoded, Ramsey explained the major difference: "Being forcibly taken from your home, put in shackles on a disease-infested ship, and forced to do hard labor from sunrise to sunset is not the same thing as clocking in at Starbucks, okay?"
3) Other countries had slavery too
It’s true America wasn’t the only country that had slavery. In fact, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade’s name signals the scope of slave routes, which traveled from the shores of West and Central Africa to the Caribbean before stopping in the US.
Many of the people (nearly 4 million) taken from Africa to be slaves between the 16th and 19th centuries ended up in Brazil because the slavery conditions in Brazil were so brutal that continued importation was essential to make up for the high death rate, which outpaced birth rate.
But slavery elsewhere doesn’t change the fact that slavery in the US was still wrong.
"Even if slavery was common practice when America was doing it, it doesn’t make it right," Ramsey said. "Slavery is bad, and it was always bad, everywhere, no matter who’s doing it!"
4) The Irish in America were also slaves
Some people believe the Irish in America were also slaves because the Irish, historically, have faced persecution and many came to the US as indentured servants.
Ramsay’s response is simple: "No, they were not."
Ramsey has discredited this idea before. But that doesn’t change the fact that it has become a fixture for racist right-wing internet trolls.
In an interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center, Liam Hogan, an Irish historian, explained that the myth of Irish slaves "broadly claims that indentured servitude and penal servitude can be equated with racialized perpetual hereditary chattel slavery."
The point is to try to deflect the reality of black people’s enslavement in the US by mythologizing a group of white people who were also slaves.
But Ramsey underlined the main problem with this approach: "Class, let’s say this one together: Persecution is bad, but not the same as slavery!"
5) Africans sold other Africans as slaves
This is similar to saying slavery happened in other places. It’s true that Africans did sell other Africans into slavery, but that doesn’t absolve Americans and Europeans for their participation in slavery.
In fact, suggesting as much erases a lot of nuance about power dynamics involved with how both Africans and Europeans were involved in the process.
As Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote for the New York Times in 2010, "Slavery was a business, highly organized and lucrative for European buyers and sellers alike."
But slavery in the US wasn’t exactly business as usual. Barbara Ransby, a historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago, noted for Colorlines that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade exploited existing practices like selling prisoners of war into slavery to usher in "a heinous and brutal system that rested squarely on the dual pillars of white supremacy and ruthless capitalist greed."
Ramsey showcased the major takeaway from this historical fact: "It just means that West Africans also have a history to reckon with, just like us and every modern celebrity that thinks blackface is a joke."
So why do people still try to justify slavery today?
It turns out a lot of it has to do with the fact that America’s mythic greatness is inextricably tied to the atrocities of slavery Americans try to sweep under the rug.
Being honest about slavery, Ramsey said, forces us to grapple with the fact that our founding fathers who fought for freedom from Britain’s tyranny hypocritically kept an entire population in bondage. Additionally, recognizing slavery means addressing the systemic inequalities that have stayed with us long after its abolition.
"The blatant forms of racism we still see today, from disenfranchising black voters to police brutality, are rooted in the fact that people were brought here against their will and treated like they were subhuman," Ramsey said.
Acting like this isn’t the case isn’t a solution.
"We can’t keep ignoring and mythologizing slavery just because facing it head-on makes us feel bad," Ramsey said. "Part of the healing comes from facing it."
However, she also offered an additional method for healing: not watching Bill O’Reilly.