Annette John-Hall: Critique of President's House was off-base

Posted: January 04, 2011

Made the mistake of ringing in 2011 by reading a story in the New York Times that felt like a backhand across the face.

That's how much it stung.

Times arts critic Edward Rothstein, in a callous and arrogant piece about the recently opened President's House exhibit on Independence Mall, lamely attempts to argue that my history - truly, all of our history - is too narrow and, by extension, doesn't really matter.

Apparently the one and only slave memorial built on a federal site is one too many for some.

Dismissing the President's House as little more than an "identity museum," Rothstein asserts that it was "designed to affirm a particular group's claims" and calls the exhibit an "ineffectual mishmash" that has reached "new lows."

The esteemed critic obviously missed the point of the exhibit.

Rothstein argues that the commemoration, by focusing on slavery, loses sight of other important history. You know, real American history.

Like more about George Washington, for one. The father of our country, America's foremost patriot. Military man. President. Name and image affixed to every stamp, currency, school and monument you can possibly imagine.

Except that a narrow little inconvenient truth surfaced as plans were made to build a president's house memorial. Something conveniently omitted from my history books: Washington unapologetically owned more than 300 Africans, nine of whom he shuttled back and forth between his Virginia plantation and his presidential home in Philadelphia.

"The President's House site reminds us how unfinished the story is," said St. Joseph's University professor Randall Miller, one of the project's historians. "The liberty documents the Founding Fathers drafted weren't simply about parchment, it was about what they did with them. In some instances, they weren't keeping the promises they made to themselves and to prosperity."

The quest for American freedom exposed our Founding Fathers as hypocritical and, yes, downright inhumane when it came to the institution of slavery. See, true history doesn't come wrapped neatly in a red, white, and blue bow. History can be messy.

Which is why it took eight years of debate, discussion, dissension, and protest to determine the best way to balance the story.

But, no. Rothstein would have us believe that the President's House distorts history.

"At the Philadelphia site," Rothstein wrote, "many of the claims are fierce - and some just - but they too end up distorting history by demanding the sacrifice of other perspectives."

You mean, encountering the truth?

I doubt Rothstein would have preferred that the exhibit expose more about Washington, a slaveholder from age 11 who over the years built his wealth and status on his enslaved human capital.

And clearly he isn't concerned with giving voice to Oney Judge, Christopher Sheels, Joe, Giles, Hercules, Paris, Moll, Richard and Austin - Washington's slaves.

Real conversation

I was there in the bitter cold for the dedication of the President's House last month. I saw how moved folks were who placed wreaths at the foot of the granite wall where the names of the nine are inscribed.

I hung out at the site's dig three summers ago and listened to the conversations people - of all races and ethnicities - had about slavery and freedom. Everybody, it seemed, had a stake in the exhibit's completion.

"The point is, people want to know about this," Miller says. "We're always afraid that if we point out the imperfections in our heroes, we're ripping the fabric of the nation, but it's the other way around. If you acknowledge the truth, that's how you build community."

A "cultural catharsis," says Philadelphia lawyer Michael Coard, who isn't letting Rothstein's piece fly without a response. Coard, who led the activist group Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), which pushed for the memorial, has already submitted a point-by-point rebuttal to the Times.

"Here's a guy who's completely blinded by racial indifference and culture insensitivity," Coard says. "What it boils down to for him is, 'What's the big American deal about this small African American stuff?' "

In the end, Rothstein doesn't get to decide whether the President's House is simply a showcase born of people's agendas or a deeply realized piece of American history. Neither do Coard or Miller or I, for that matter.

The people get to decide. And our conversations continue to enlighten and evolve, like history itself.

Contact me at 215-854-4986 or Read my work: Follow me on Twitter @Annettejh.

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