Slavery, the Plantation Myth, and Alternative Facts

tags: slavery

Tyler Parry is an Associate Professor in African American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. He studies slavery, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic world. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTDParry.

Earlier this year, NBC journalist Chuck Todd pressed  the Counselor to the US President, Kellyanne Conway, to explain spurious claims made by then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. The interview quickly intensified as Todd submitted that Spicer told lies that undermined the “credibility” of the White House. Conway responded that Spicer offered “alternative facts” that might not align with the mainstream press. Todd immediately denounced the explanation, asserting that “alternative facts” were nothing more than “falsehoods.”

Unsurprisingly, the phrase did not die with the single interview. Cartoons, memes, and hashtags parodying Conway’s remarks soon descended upon social media in stunning fashion. Clever wordplay ensued as comedians and other entertainers applied “alternative facts” to various daily realities. Comedian and late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel quipped: “I wish I would have known about alternative facts in high school, I would have had straight A’s.” For journalist Dan Rather, however, the administration’s blatant lies, even in the face of evidence, seemed far more harrowing. Rather suggested that it was an “Orwellian phrase” that represented the United States’ entry into an extraordinary time of political fabrications disseminated by an incompetent administration.

The media spectacle was understandable. From a historian’s perspective, however, the “alternative fact” is deeply embedded within American social and political discourse–especially as it relates to African American history. Collins English Dictionary provides two ways to define it: (1) a theory posited as an alternative to another, often more widely accepted, theory; (2) (facetious) a statement intended to contradict another more verifiable, but less palatable, statement.

In either definition, one finds that such ideas are rooted in North America’s historical memory of slavery. As early as 1866, Edward A. Pollard’s book The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the Confederates claimed to present “a severely just account of the War” to contend against the “false schools of public opinion” unsympathetic to the US South. Pollard’s thesis was quite persuasive. Generations of white southerners believed their ancestral war against the North was noble, and they suspected those outside the region were deliberately misrepresenting their history.

Though advocates for the “Lost Cause” referenced slavery, scholars note that white southerners’ nostalgic presentations of masters and slaves more specifically align with a concept termed the “Plantation Myth.” This polemic asserted that the antebellum South was a picturesque, agrarian region untouched by the evils of industrial capitalism. In this idyllic past, enslaved people were content in their bondage and enjoyed the benefits of white Christian civilization under the careful tutelage of the master class. Nostalgic whites and their descendants believed such stories were intentionally suppressed throughout the United States, and specifically requested that those who lived during the antebellum period document their reflections for future generations. Writing to the Confederate Veteran, reader Manly Curry worried that popular representations of slavery only portrayed its “dark side,” replete with images of the overseer’s whip and the terror slaves attached to the “bay of the bloodhound.” Curry proposed that pro-Confederate publications could rescue the South’s reputation by detailing slavery’s “bright side,” showcasing how slaves “enjoyed life” with activities like corn shuckings, barbecues, and weddings. Curry encouraged the magazine to publish variations of the Plantation Myth that directly countered the “more widely accepted” narrative of southern slavery. He was, essentially, calling for the propagation of alternative facts. ...

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