When I first told a few of my friends I would be participating in the Mount Vernon Leadership Fellows Program, they were happy for me. We saw it as a fantastic opportunity to develop myself as a leader and a chance for me to work on a cause I passionately believed in. Within that happiness, though, lied a bit of confusion. What would it mean, as a Black man, to live and study on land that played a direct role in the subjugation of Black folks? What would it mean to live on a slave plantation?
George Washington was a noble leader in many respects, and can easily serve as a model for some of the foundational qualities that foster sustainable leadership. Yet, he tainted his dream. His belief in the American project was accompanied by complex views on slavery that, while seemingly progressive after death, directly benefited his personal success, wealth, and legacy during his life.
We spent last Thursday exploring George Washington’s relationship to slavery. The day started with a tour of the grounds specifically focusing on the lives of enslaved workers at Mount Vernon. About a year and a half ago, Mount Vernon as an organization moved away from the term “slave” to acknowledge the people held in bondage as real people with struggles, feelings, desires, and dreams.
Our goal in this exhibition is to use language that respects the dignity of all. When possible, we have replaced the word “slaves” with “enslaved people” in order to emphasize their humanity rather than a status imposed by others.
While I appreciate the meaning behind the change in vocabulary, I’m not sure how I feel about the actual act.
Regardless, after the tour, we met with Brenda Parker who interpreted the life of Caroline Branham, a former slave on the Mount Vernon Estate. Watching her offer an interpretation was a fascinating, and at times emotionally distressing, experience. She captured the pride that slaves held in the few things they had: her husband and children. She beautifully countered the idea that George Washington was a “good” slave-owner, calling him responsible at best.
“Just because a cage is not made out of iron does that not make it a cage” said Caroline. “Just because my chains are made out of cotton doesn’t meant they are not chains.”
This statement was important because it contradicts a narrative that George Washington was somehow light-hearted and sympathetic towards the issue of slavery. George Washington once wrote to Robert Morris:
I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it (slavery); but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage (vote and support) will go, shall never be wanting.
While he claimed a desire to see slavery abolished, he used its forces to benefit his wealth and legacy up until the day he died. Even if one accepts the premise that Washington really did have “mixed feelings” about slavery, he continued to value the lives of himself and his counterparts above his slaves—the definition of white supremacy.
I resonated with Brenda. In response to a question focusing on the emotional labor that goes into interpreting a slave, she uttered “Sometimes I feel like the weight of my entire race is on my shoulder as an interpreter. I’m very purposeful in what I choose to say.” This is a sentiment I believe many people of color share. Because our bodies are inherently political, we must walk, talk, and live with the knowledge that to many we represent all who look like us. It’s a role never requested, but almost always placed upon us by the spaces we inhabit
The group transitioned later in the day to a new exhibit at Mount Vernon: Lives Bound Together. It was a truly beautiful exhibit. Hanging around the exhibit was a ribbon of sorts listing the names of all the slaves recorded in Mount Vernon records. I was touched by it because it reminded me of the #SayHerName campaign that started after the horrifying arrest and subsequent death of Sandra Bland. The exhibit featured dedications to many individual slaves of whom more information was recorded.
It was a taxing week. But I looked back on my favorite poem , “Still I Rise,” for encouragement. One very special passage always sits in my heart.
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.