Hey, Don’t Forget About Us!

Published:June 4, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

Last week we made the point here that the Washington Post‘s story on Halsey Minor and Carter’s Grove plantation contained a throw-away line about the Powhatan Indians “massacre” in 1622 that was historically inappropriate (because it implies that Indian violence, unlike English violence, is illegitimate). David Patrick McKenzie, a graduate student at George Mason  University, makes a similar point. He notices that the Post‘s writer also hid away (in the passive voice) the contributions of enslaved laborers. According to the Post, Carter Burwell wanted Carter’s Grove “to awe visitors with physical evidence of the bountiful riches that could be wrung from the New World wilderness.” Responds McKenzie:

Burwell wrung his wealth–note the article’s passive voice–from the enslaved persons (47 in 1783) who lived and toiled at Carter’s Grove every day for undernourishing rations and pitiful housing.

Sadly, this is not the first time I’ve seen such romanticization of plantation life inThe Post‘s pages. Last year the paper ran a travel story about a 1778 plantation-turned-inn near Orange, Virginia, where the writer imagined herself and her husband as “lord and lady of the manor,” talked about the other “buildings” on the “estate,” and included a joke that a mannequin in a tux was “the original butler.” Never mind that while Virginia’s gentry fancied themselves as English, they were running (sometimes) profitable slave-labor operations; some of the buildings on the plantation may be former slave quarters, if such flimsily-built housing even survives; and that the original butler would not be the well-paid and attired Mr. Jeeves but an enslaved person.

Well, an enslaved butler might be well-attired, but the point still stands.

McKenzie concludes his post by writing, “It behooves any writer to get his or her history right.” I agree, but I think we need to be careful (emphasis on we) not to scold journalists too much here. It behooves the writer even more to get her facts about Halsey Minor correct. And what the writer did here was not so much get her history wrong but, through her choice of words, erase important perspectives. There is no right or wrong perspective, of course; it’s subjective. And the writer’s words simply did not reflect what we consider to be the most up-to-date and fair way of presenting the context of colonial Virginia.

IMAGE: Slaves on a plantation near Richmond