One of the most powerful lines from Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Convention was her reflection that she “wake[s] up every morning in a house that was built by slaves”.
The first lady continued by noting how times have changed, saying that now, “I watch my daughters — two beautiful, intelligent, black young women — playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
While her statement was factually correct, one US broadcaster was quick to argue that the slaves in question “were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government”.
The remarks were made by Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly who explained that, “records show about four hundred payments made to slave masters between 1795 and 1801. In addition, free blacks, whites and immigrants also worked on the massive building”.
“Michelle Obama is essentially correct in citing slaves as builders of the White House, but there were others working as well.”
O’Reilly’s comments were swiftly criticised on social media for glamorising the treatment of slaves in a way that denies their hardships and break of basic human rights.
He later responded to the uproar by saying, “As any honest historian knows, in order to keep slaves and free laborers strong, the Washington administration provided meat, bread and other staples, also decent lodging on the grounds of the new presidential building. That is a fact. Not a justification, not a defense of slavery.”
The New York Times notes that while slaves were fed pork and bread, that isn’t an indication that they were “well fed”.
“We know as construction workers they were expected to do hard, gruelling, backbreaking work,” author Jesse Holland told the publication.
“So they had to feed them enough so they could actually get their money’s worth. Were they well fed? That’s not something that, right now, history supports.”
Mr Holland goes on to note that the “decent lodgings” the slaves had were described as barns and that it is unknown whether they were allowed into the houses specially built for the free workers.
O’Reilly’s words are not uncommon in the way that they work to propagate the stereotype of the “happy slave” or paint a picture that wasn't so grim.
Slaves have often been imagined in ways that minimise the brutality they faced and the impact it continues to have on American society.
For example, Slate notes multiple occasions of "feel better about your history, white kids” arguments that including citing that the Irish were also enslaved for some time, albeit not to the same extent or inter-generational way as black people were in America.
Others include that slavery existed in Africa before Europeans arrived, although the matter was exacerbated after their arrival, and that some poor working people in English factories had worse living conditions, even though they were free.
Roots continues on Wednesday 3 August at 8:30pm on SBS and encores on Saturday 6 July, 9.30pm on NITV. After they air, episodes will be available on SBS On Demand.
Watch the first episode right here: