Saturday, June 21, 2008

Slavery Chic

by Stephen Glass
Mount Vernon Postcard

In think tanks, on Capitol Hill, even at political magazines, summer interns complain they get treated like slaves. At a summer program on the grounds of Mount Vernon, that's the point. Or at least it's supposed to be. As part of a program called "George Washington: Pioneer Farmer," seven college students are spending the summer on what's left of the first president's Virginia plantation, supposedly living their lives much as his slaves did 200 years ago. Using Washington's own notes as a guide, they work the same fields, tend the same kinds of livestock, even don reproductions of the same knickerbockers and waistcoats Washington's hands once wore.

For the Mount Vernon tourists, these interns are part of the attraction--a living exhibit of plantation life. For the students, all of whom are white, the idea is not merely to learn about agriculture but also to experience, firsthand, slavery--the kind of culturally defining ordeal that, according to the practitioners of identity politics, whites might not otherwise grasp.

But a really authentic slave experience is hard to find. I recently spent a day working alongside the intern-slaves at Mount Vernon, and one thing was clear: the Founding Father's hands never had it this good. These slaves work no more than eight hours a day, and they get weekends and evenings off. They have private rooms, with indoor plumbing. They enjoy television and the Internet, and, when they wish for music, they switch on their boom boxes instead of strumming on their old banjos. And, oh yes, they are paid $200 per week--the same princely sum as a tnr intern.

Actually, the slaves at Mount Vernon aren't even called "slaves." One intern told me that label was "classist"; another said it was "imposed" and Eurocentric, arguing that slaves should have the right to choose their own labels. And still another said it "really keeps you down." The preferred term is "field worker." Apparently that denotes the nature of the work, not the level of social standing. Progressive labor laws make another essential aspect of slavery illegal--corporal punishment. In fact, there's no hostility between the taskmasters and the slaves. And since Mount Vernon doesn't offer overtime, the only incentive is that they get to take back to college a set of authentic garb, stitched by an Indiana company that specializes in early American clothing.

In fairness, the work isn't easy. Over the course of a day, each slave works at about five different tasks. I was horrible at all of them. My day started near the barn, where a fellow slave asked me to watch a lamb that within a few seconds had bolted for the wheat fields. I thought about letting the lamb go free, out of solidarity. But the animal stopped after a few yards and wandered back. It was no better a runaway than I was a slave.

I didn't fare much better as a tour guide-slave. As Jimmy Guckman, a junior tourist from Los Angeles, petted the lamb's soft pelt, I imparted a bit of knowledge. "That's where cotton comes from," I said. The 5-year-old, a surprisingly well-informed young fellow, rolled his eyes at me. "Ya mean wool,” he said. Right. Wool. My lack of farm knowledge wasn't the only betrayal of inauthenticity. Although the adults rarely mentioned it, kids quickly noticed the obvious fact that not one of us was black. When I asked John Riley, Mount Vernon's assistant to the director, about the discrepancy, he became a little defensive. Mount Vernon, he insisted, is an equal opportunity employer. It just seems Washington's farm has a hard time attracting black slaves. Mount Vernon seems uneasily aware of its vulnerability to charges of institutional racism in its color-blind slave program. In conversations with several program officials, I got the clear impression that Mount Vernon would greet any black applicant with great eagerness, possibly even preferential treatment. "We'd like to have minorities here," said one official. "I'm sure if we knew the applicant was black, we'd help them along. It would be great for us, and for them." It's come to this: affirmative action on the plantation.

Here, however, Mount Vernon runs into another problem. The most efficient way to meet affirmative action goals is to set lower standards for minority hires. But Mount Vernon maintains standards that are quite exclusionary. Not just anybody gets to be a slave; the plantation only considers applicants who have agricultural experience. Such restrictions may unfairly discriminate against black applicants. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only 18,816 of America's 1,925,300 farms, or 1 percent, are operated by blacks. Although there are certainly blacks who work on farms but don't own them, the pool of black applicants who can meet Mount Vernon's agricultural requirement is obviously far smaller than that of whites.

Even for those applicants who make it past this hurdle, the competition is fierce: in recent years, as many as 400 students have applied for the handful of slots. Each applicant wrote an essay and submitted at least two letters of recommendation. The program accepts about 5 percent of the applicants, making it more selective than the Ivy League.

Alas, such competition yields a crop of slaves who seem more concerned with cultivating their resumes than their wheat. "I don't think anyone here wants to go into this field full time," explained Kara David, an intern from Texas. Most hope to attend graduate school, or land high-paying jobs in agribusiness. "I think it will really show that I am dedicated to my job," says another intern. "I mean it will demonstrate that I will break my back working hard for them."

Well, not really break. More like slightly strain. When it began raining later in the day, the slaves ditched their posts and searched for cover, abandoning a family of tourists near the fields. That left program developer Sandy Newton to make sure the tourists found shelter. After that, she had to run through the soaked fields--petticoat, bonnet and all--in order to save the fragile and expensive scarecrows from the strong winds.

After the rain subsided, the slaves eventually wandered back. A few confessed that they had lingered away from work simply because slavery can be "boring." "I guess I can relate to them," one said. "For slaves, every day was the same routine. Each day was just another day, another dollar." Only without the dollar.

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