Just another response to Bill O’Reilly’s slave comment


It really rankled some conservatives that Michelle Obama’s speech on Monday night was universally praised. Thus some of them took the low road of criticizing her for mentioning that slaves had helped build the White House,  alleging that the comment was merely an effort to divide us along racial lines (white guilt).  At first there were denials that slaves had worked on the White House, but when the  evidence became overwhelming that they had, some  pundits despicably reached for the argument that slavery was not so bad. Most famously, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly (who fancies himself an historian after writing a series of poorly researched books), while acknowledging slaves worked on the White House, made sure to note that the slaves had been fed and housed well.  The reaction from  historians was swift, and there are many stories and blog postings (too many to count) about it all over the web today. As Edward Ayers points out in his interview for Time,  O’Reilly’s comments are nothing new,  harkening to the antebellum proslavery response to the abolitionist attack on slavery, as well as the “Lost Cause” justification of the South by southerners after the Civil War. Kevin Levin digs even deeper on his Civil War Memory blog, nicely pointing to a letter written by First Lady Abigail Adams in which she noted that some of the slaves she saw laboring around the White House were “half fed, and destitute of clothing.” Meanwhile, food historian Michael W. Twitty responded to O’Reilly by examining slave diets, challenging the Fox News commentator to try the typical enslaved person diet for one week “to go along with his southern fried crow.”

To be fair, O’Reilly did not overtly defend slavery, but we have to wonder why he felt the need to claim the slaves were fed well. In the end, it matters not a bit if these enslaved laborers were well fed and lodged, or even if they had never had their flesh ripped open by the lash. So why bring it up? What purpose does it serve? Whether he  wants to admit it or not, doing so (and without any proof) does harken to the proslavery/Lost Cause defense of slavery.  No matter their diet or housing, the fact still remains that as enslaved individuals they could not own and control their own labor, could be sold at the whim of their masters, could have their children or spouses sold away from them, had no rights that were recognized either culturally or legally, and could make no decisons about where they wanted to be or what kind of life they wanted to have.  Bill O’Reilly’s comments are tainted by his failure to view slavery from the perspective of the enslaved, rather than just from that of  white masters.

Listen, I think Bill O’Reilly is intelligent enough to know that Michelle Obama’s reference (as accurate as it was) was not really about the White House specifically, but was a way of personalizing her connection to how much progress we have seen in America. I also actually believe that he knows better than to embrace such a ridiculous proslavery argument. The fact is, some conservatives were so upset about the First Lady’s universally praised speech that they looked for something, anything, for which to criticize it. As a friend of mine noted, “this election is bringing out the worst in everybody.” Indeed.

Lincoln actually had a great retort for people that made the proslavery argument, so I’ll let him have the final word of response to Bill O’Reilly:

“Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”


Michelle Obama, the arc of American history, and a speech that will scour.


Immediately after delivering the Gettysburg address, Lincoln reportedly (though he probably didn’t) said, “that speech won’t scour.” (Meaning he didn’t think it could be cleaned up to be memorable and stand the test of time.)

Michelle Obama’s speech last night will scour.

Listen, if you are objective, and even subtract away the things she said specifically about Clinton, focusing on what she said about leadership, I think she made a pretty good case for why Trump is not qualified for the presidency (and did so without even mentioning his name). If your concerns about Hillary hinder you from being opposed to Trump, I beg you to go back and listen to her speech again, focusing not on her Hillary comments, but her comments on leadership.

But the moment that her speech elevated itself into something that really blew people away was when she put her life and moment on the stage into historical context. I have always preached that one of the most important things about history is that it connects us to something bigger than ourselves, tying us to the story of all mankind. President Obama has consistently delivered speeches during his presidency that resonate and carry emotional power because he has a keen understanding and appreciation for American history, embracing MLK’s  insistence that the arc of history bends towards justice. I immediately felt that the speech he gave at the Pettus Bridge in Selma would stand as his best, because he connected our founding and its principles to the Civil Rights movement and then to the present, in a hopeful narrative of American history (which is why I loved seeing this article the other day from the Washington Post pondering which of his speeches “is the one for the history books.”) His interpretation of history is what often gives his speeches their power. I do not know  who wrote Michelle’s speech last night, but she too included an optimistic appraisal of America’s historical trajectory, and it was when she did so that audiences became the most emotionally connected to her words. Commentator after commentator pointed out that her historical allusions were the moment that her rhetoric soared, moved people to tears, and, as The Atlantic put it, became “a speech for the ages.” Both Republican and Democrats agree that she nailed it. To quote:

“That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters –- two beautiful, intelligent, black young women –- playing with their dogs on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters –- and all our sons and daughters -– now take for granted that a woman can be President of the United States. So don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this, right now, is the greatest country on earth.”

That, my friends, is the power and importance of history. It is how I feel the American story should be told: emphasizing our failures and the obstacles that we’ve had to overcome as individuals and as a nation in our fight to keep the arc of our history bent toward greater justice. Acknowledging that it can and often does goes backwards makes it all the more imperative to inspire us to keep it in the right direction. The optimistic emotions the speech invoked in audiences is the very reason why I think our history should be taught this way. Further, the speech is the type of language and vision of our nation that all of our greatest American leaders have harkened to in their finest moments (the Founders, Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, TR, Alice Paul, FDR, JFK, MLK, Reagan, etc). It is those kinds of words that have inspired and helped us lift ourselves out of our darkest times.

With everything going on in our country and the world right now, the contrast between what we heard last Thursday night and last night couldn’t be stronger, or more profound.