Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House


Rating: 4 Stars

Michelle Obama's speech at the DNC has been dissected and argued about in the press and by these talking heads since it happened, but it was that speech and this particular part:

"...I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves -- (applause) -- and I watch my daughters –- two beautiful, intelligent, black young women –- playing with their dogs on the White House lawn." (Speech text taken from

...that made me feel like a total moron. In my defense, and the defense of countless others across the country who have never given much thought to those who built the White House, it is because we were never TAUGHT that. Yes, we learned about the Revolutionary War and those tough early years of the fledgling country that is now the greatest power on earth. We may have read a paragraph about the War of 1812 when the British burned the White House to the ground and Dolley Madison bravely saved the Landsdowne portrait of Washington before fleeing for her life - though even this is not entirely accurate and she almost certainly had help in removing it.

Basically, it never occurred to me that slaves built the White House. And that is embarrassing.

So, in order to remedy this and gain some much-needed knowledge, I found this one while perusing the new releases at the library. It was kind of another wake-up moment for me. I have known as an adult that most of the early presidents owned slaves, but again even then, it did not occur to me that slaves lived and worked in the White House. Perhaps because I am white, this is not something I have ever had to consider - that my ancestors may have been owned by others and forced to work while their owners profited from the labor (most of my family is German with a lil bit of Swede and came to the US in the late 1800s or so). When people say white privilege is not a thing, this itself is a prime example that white privilege is very much a thing that is alive and well today.

The only real flaw in the book is the fact that there are so many unknowns about the people who worked and cared for the early presidents and their families. As we now know, very little record-keeping was done then in regards to slaves. We simply do not know who many of these people were, because of their status as slaves, and were deemed property instead of human beings. I was interested to read in the conclusion that the author is continuing his research in order to find more information on those mentioned in the current book, as well as other stories yet to be discovered. He also mentions the research being done in regards to the life of slaves on the various presidential plantations. I would be very interested to read those stories as well.

I have a love/hate relationship with these presidents, particularly George Washington and to a lesser extent, Thomas Jefferson (this is only because Washington was one of my favorite presidents from my youth, and there has always been something about Jefferson that rubs me the wrong way, though I can not quite figure out what it is, aside from the obvious in being a slave owner). From the time I was old enough to learn about these early presidents, Washington captivated me. He was a strong leader in the army, before becoming our first president. He had stood up to the British, won numerous battles, and freed the colonies from the oppressive taxes of a far-off government. I was enthralled by him and this group of men who dared to stand up and fight for their freedom. But as I got older, mostly in high school, college, and now that I have settled back into my reading-for-pleasure habit again, cracks began to appear in this image I had of Washington. How could someone I admired so greatly for all of his courage and virtues, in turn deny the very freedom he fought for, to the slaves he owned? The author does point out the times in which the slaves were freed in the wills of their owners, but this is not good enough. We can not deny the fact that slavery and all its trauma and horror played such a prominent role in building the very foundation of this nation. While we may still revere these men for those aspects of their character that made them great leaders, we can't forget that while they forged ahead with their new-found freedom, their slaves were left behind in bondage.

Highly recommended.
really liked it

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