While our friends Al & Justine were visiting us last week, we took them to visit the historic Ima Hogg mansion and museum at Bayou Bend here in Houston. The house was built in the 1920s, and Ima Hogg was a great collector of antique art and furniture. We took a 90-minute tour, where an extremely knowledgeable docent talked all about the furnishings and decorations in the home, where they came from, what eras they represented and so on. She was clearly very educated on the subject of the house and antique furniture.
As background, there were six of us on the tour: Marcus, Al and Justine, all white Brits; an elderly white gentleman from Chicago, a young white German woman, and me. The docent was a middle-aged white woman, a native Houstonian. She asked where we all were from at the start of the tour.
She took us all around the house, explaining the provenance of every little detail, answering our questions fully when she could. We got to one room, and there were some brightly-coloured ceramic candlestick holders on the mantle of a fireplace with scenes that depicted some children, two of whom were black. The docent mentioned that the candlesticks were French, and the scenes were from the book Uncle Tom's Cabin.
"It shows that the French were interested in the topic," she said briskly, before moving us on. She said nothing more about the book, or, for that matter, the candlesticks -- she just changed the subject and started talking about what we were about to see in the next room.
I laughed quietly, and repeated, "the topic," to myself as we followed her out. Justine saw me and whispered, "Yeah ... what's 'the topic'?"
"Slavery," I smiled back. "But clearly, we don't like to say that ugly word out loud."
I haven't been able to stop thinking about this since that day. If I hadn't been there, potentially 4 people of the group would've had no idea what the docent was talking about (I'm assuming that the elderly gentleman from Chicago understood). Or maybe they would have -- I have no idea if the docent said "the topic" instead of "slavery" out of some misguided sensitivity because I was there as part of the group. Perhaps she would've explained it further had the group been all white. I don't know.
I do know this: being euphemistic about history does absolutely no one any good. It does not insult me to state facts about America's slaveholding past (it's not like there's a black person alive in America who isn't aware of it), nor does it do foreign tourists any good to gloss over the points of history that are clearly raised as part of the tour (especially since Uncle Tom's Cabin was a huge part of of the abolitionist movement, and what an opportunity to educate, there!).
And, by the way, there is no way that race relations in America are going to get any better if Americans don't start claiming the ugly past, so that they can use the lessons of those times to create a more inclusive future.