As the author of The Slaves’ War, from which your August 2008 article “Fearful Cry of Freedom” was taken, I am grateful for American History’s interest in my work. But it was accompanied by captions excerpted from the Works Progress Administration’s interviews with former slaves that employed both the “N” word and gratuitous Negro dialect forms. In my preface and author’s note I explained why, while retaining idiomatic grammar and vocabulary, I had removed the dialect forms because they were imposed even on the transcriptions of the most educated African Americans—doctors, lawyers, businessmen—and thus cannot be relied upon. And I omitted the “N” word not only because it is impossible to tell whether it was used by the subjects or introduced by their interviewers, but also because people have a hard time reading when they see red. I found that my alterations lifted a veil of caricature that too long obscured what former slaves actually had to say, and I wanted your readers to know that the captions do not reflect my approach to this invaluable material.
How dare you compare John McCain to George Washington or any of the others in “Soldiers Who Would Be President” (August 2008). Was this a subtle editorial endorsement of McCain?
The editors reply: You might want to get your conspiracy detector checked. The piece was simply a list of presidential candidates with military experience.
Mount Vernon’s circular drive is not “quintessentially American” (“George Washington’s Magnificent Obsession,” August 2008). I have seen similar driveways at palaces and manor houses in Europe that predate Mount Vernon. The reason for them is quite simple: Horse-drawn carriages are not easy to back out of or turn around in a narrow driveway. In a circular drive, carriage drivers could pull up to the main entrance, then continue forward around the circle to the driveway entrance or to the stables.
Richard S. Relac
While I enjoyed reading the interview with Melissa Harris-Lacewell (“Barbershops, Bibles and America’s Racial Divide,” August 2008), I was disappointed that she perpetrated the myth that Plessy v. Ferguson “reasserted the one-drop rule of American racial history.” An adult male has about 12 pints of blood. At 16 drops per teaspoon, that’s 18,432 drops of blood in his body, which is close enough to 16,384 for our purposes. That 16,384 is 2 to the 14th power, meaning an individual had one African ancestor 14 generations back. There is no way that an individual with “one drop” could be detected, and indeed, there never was any “one drop” rule, other than figuratively.
The editors reply: True, the one-drop rule is a figurative description, but it’s had very literal consequences. In his argument before the Supreme Court, Plessy’s lawyer, Albion Tourgée, asked, “Will the court hold that a single drop of African blood is sufficient to color a whole ocean of Caucasian whiteness?” The justices ruled 8-1 that it was.
Your review of Ladies of Liberty (August 2008) refers to “a former African American slave,” an “Englishwoman” and a “Jewish philanthropist.” Has political correctness invaded so thoroughly that a slave has American status, but an Englishwoman and a Jewish woman do not?