Virginia first lady Pam Northam apologized Wednesday after she handed out cotton to black children during a recent tour of the governor’s mansion, the latest racial controversy involving the top levels of state government.
Northam handed out the cotton while showing students an adjacent cottage to the residence that had once served as a kitchen, asking them to imagine picking the crop as enslaved Africans.
“I regret that I have upset anyone,” Northam said. “I am still committed to chronicling the important history of the Historic Kitchen, and will continue to engage historians and experts on the best way to do so in the future.”
Her apology came after a Virginia state employee whose eighth-grade daughter and another black child were on the tour complained to lawmakers and Gov. Ralph Northam’s office, The Washington Post reported.
What is the problem here? It is a historical fact that black slaves picked cotton on Virginia plantations. What is wrong with giving schoolchildren of whatever race a tactile sense of what raw cotton is — this, as part of a tour explaining the history of the residence in antebellum times? What’s next, Pam Northam having to apologize for wearing cotton sweaters?
Northam’s office and one other parent of a child who was present said the first lady did not single out the African American students and simply handed out the cotton to a group.
… Trained docents often lead tours of the Executive Mansion, which was built with slave labor in 1813 and is the oldest active governor’s residence in the country. In this case, Pam Northam — a former middle school teacher — took groups of pages to an adjacent cottage that had long ago served as a kitchen.
Before a huge fireplace with iron cooking implements, Pam Northam held up samples of cotton and tobacco to a group of about 20 children and described the enslaved workers who picked it.
“Mrs. Northam then asked these three pages (the only African American pages in the program) if they could imagine what it must have been like to pick cotton all day,” Walker wrote. “I can not for the life of me understand why the first lady would single out the African American pages for this — or — why she would ask them such an insensitive question.”
The governor’s office, which did not make Pam Northam available for an interview, said she simply handed the cotton to whoever was nearby and wanted everyone to note the sharpness of the stems and leaves on the raw cotton, to imagine how uncomfortable it would’ve been to handle all day.
As an educational point, I get it: Having children touch and feel cotton to help imagine a time when handling the rough fiber was daily life during slavery isn’t a terrible thing. It brings history into the present day. And Northam’s stated belief that “it does a disservice to Virginians to omit the stories of the enslaved people who lived and worked there” is laudable. Where Northam ran off the rails was in handing the stuff to the African American children who were a part of the annual tour for state Senate pages and asking them that dumb question. Yes, I call it a dumb question, because for African Americans, cotton is not an abstraction. It is as integral to our family history as it is to the nation’s.
After my mother read the story about Pam Northam, she wrote back, “What is happening to these white people? Do they think slavery and poor black folks, black sharecropper were a game[?]”
In her statement of apology, Northam said, “I regret that I have upset anyone.” Four hundred years after the first slaves arrived in Virginia, we have a right to expect better. I regret that neither Northam seems capable of moving this painful and necessary conversation on race forward.
What’s the lesson here? Best thing to do if you want to avoid being denounced as a racist is to stay in your room and never talk to anybody unlike yourself — and certainly never try to empathize with people of other races. You will never, ever be given the benefit of the doubt. What a great country we’re going to have once everybody has been forced to be entirely suspicious of everybody else!
UPDATE: From the report, it seems as if she asked this eighth-grade group this question, in the manner of a teacher (which she was before, a middle-school teacher). She handed the raw cotton to the kids standing next to her, who happened to be black. That is what Pam Northam’s office says. The Washington Post confirmed with one parent whose kid was on the trip that Northam did not single out the black kids, but “simply handed out the cotton to a group.” It sounds like Mrs. Northam put the question to the entire group, asking them to imagine what it was like to pick that cotton.
The mother who complained is Leah Dozier Walker, who oversees the Office of Equity and Community Engagement at the state Education Department. Here is a PDF of her entire letter. A screenshot of part of it:
See that? She doesn’t want ANY children to imagine what it was like to pick cotton. That’s just bizarre. Are 14-year-olds too delicate to imagine what it was like to be a slave? When I took my kids to the Whitney Plantation, a museum of slavery, it was such a powerful experience precisely because the museum compelled visitors to imagine what it was like to be a slave working those fields, and living under those conditions. This is what education is.
Last spring, when I visited the House of Terror museum in Budapest, going into the torture chambers in the basement was so affecting because it was impossible not to imagine oneself being interrogated by the communist secret police, who did exactly that in those dank rooms. That was the point.
I think the way to have handled this would have been for Mrs. Walker to have approached Mrs. Northam privately and said, “Mrs. Northam, I doubt you meant anything bad by this, but my daughter felt that you had singled out her and the other black students when you handed out the cotton. Did it happen like she told me it did? If so, I feel that you should be aware that it made my daughter feel offended. I would like an explanation.”
This would have given Mrs. Northam the chance to explain herself and to apologize if necessary.
But that’s not how Mrs. Walker handled it. She wrote a letter to the Governor’s office and copied 25 state lawmakers, thereby assuring that it would be a big story and an embarrassment to the governor. Mrs. Walker chose to believe her child and to make a big public stink about it, because she could, and because our culture rewards outrage.