George Orwell’s 1984 taught us that language—and who uses it—truly does matter. In the case of educating Texan youth about American history, language matters a great deal. McGraw-Hill Education’s current geography textbook, approved for Texas high schools, refers to African slaves as “workers” in a chapter on immigration patterns. Other linguistic sleights of hand include using the passive voice to obscure slave owner’s brutal treatment of slaves. It appears we have a Ministry of Truth at work after all, just like the one where Orwell’s ill-fated hero Winston Smith worked, rewriting history. The fact is especially disconcerting, as Texas is the largest consumer of textbooks.
I’m certain being in the spotlight for not wanting the PBS show Finding Your Roots to include mention of your slave-owning ancestor has been a real pain. The unwanted headlines, the online comments, the “Dear Ben” letters must be getting old. I’m sure you want this whole episode behind you. I get that: I’m related to the most successful transatlantic slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history.
I thank you for your honesty in admitting you were embarrassed. Many white people, upon discovering enslavers among our ancestors, feel embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty. But as I learned from Will Hairston, a white descendant of one of the wealthiest Southern enslaving families in American history, “Guilt is the glue that holds racism together.”
I appreciate you writing on your Facebook page, “We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing.”
Yes it is. And I can tell you from personal experience that what you choose to do next to continue that examination is what matters now.
Independence Day celebrations began this past weekend, with picnics, parades, and fireworks displays all around the country. In honor of the holiday, we asked several of our authors to share their feelings about Independence Day and what it means to them-- good and bad. Three authors who grapple with the complex history associated with the holiday quoted Frederick Douglass from his speech, "What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?" We've grouped their responses for today's post.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is a long-time racial-justice, labor, and international activist, scholar, and author. He has served in leadership positions with many prominent union and labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union. Fletcher is currently the director of field services for the American Federation of Government Employees. He is the author of the forthcoming book "They're Bankrupting Us!" And Twenty Other Myths about Unions.
The 4th of July is always a complicated holiday for me. That is largely because it has a complicated historical significance. When I think of July 4th I immediately think about how my African ancestors were largely ignored-- except with regard to labor power and some soldiering--in the course of the events that were transpiring at that moment, and particularly ignored in the context of great minds thinking about the future of the new nation that they wished to create. I also think about how the War of Independence was in part ignited by the indignation of the settlers over restrictions imposed on them by the British regarding going further West-- into the lands of my Shawnee ancestors and other Native American nations.
As a result, I cannot uncritically celebrate July 4th. I consider, of course, the ideal that is contained in the Declaration of Independence, and am aware of those among the colonial settlers who may have had a more egalitarian vision of the future. I am equally aware of the ideal that July 4th is supposed to represent. But I am saddened each year that there is little historical examination of the contradictory nature of the War of Independence, and that for entire populations the War of Independence came to represent yet another stage on the road to their annihilation.
In the 19th century the great Frederick Douglass posed a question in a now famous speech "What to a slave is the fourth of July?" I would expand that and pose the question that today needs to be asked and answered: For those of us who believe in democracy, justice and equality, how do we disentangle the web of myth that surrounds the Fourth of July?"
We live in fearful times. War, racism, social, economic, employment, environmental, energy, health and food security issues are on the long list of things to be worried about. And I do. Worry.
On July 4, 1776, the day America declared its independence, one fifth of the population was in a state of bondage. Seventy-six years later, in 1852, abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass, articulated, “There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”
Although legal freedom came in 1865, when four million people were released from slavery, evidence of true emancipation did not come until 143 years later, when Barack Obama was elected the first African American President of the United States. In his inaugural July 4th address, he extolled, “That unyielding spirit [that] defines us as American... It is what has always led us, as a people, not to wilt or cower at a difficult moment, but to face down any trial and rise to any challenge, understanding that each of us has a hand in writing America’s destiny.”
This July 4th, I will be thinking about history and destiny... And celebrating my commitment to be an agent of change in the world independence has wrought.
Celebration of Independence Day ain’t what it used to be for me. What I’ve learned along the road I’ve traveled the past decade-- much of which is horrible, shameful and has been deeply buried or glossed over in America’s collective psyche-- has led me to reevaluate how I view myself and my country. On July 4, 1852, Frederick Douglass said, “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.” The deep wound of racism-– the legacy of slavery-– about which Douglass spoke has never been fully acknowledged and healed. I no longer celebrate “independence” that resulted in the annihilation of millions of indigenous people and the enslavement of millions of Africans. I don’t celebrate drone strikes in the name of freedom. I celebrate truth-tellers and peacebuilders. I celebrate the progress we have made and continue to make in the face of strong resistance. Mostly, I celebrate hope – the hope that one day we will live up to the ideals upon which this great country was founded.
At Beacon Press, we have published many books that examine the most troubling parts of our history and culture. In honor of Black History Month, here are a few of the titles we've brought out in recent years that look at slavery and its lasting impact on American society.
While Kindred is a work of fiction, it is one of those books that vividly illuminates history through imaginative storytelling. We couldn't make a list of Beacon Press books on the legacy of slavery without including it.
Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana's life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.
"I cannot recommend it highly enough. The book is terrific." —Harry Smith, anchor, The Early Show, CBS
"DeWolf's intimate confrontation with white America's 'unearned privilege' sears the conscience." —Kirkus Reviews
In 2001, Thomas DeWolf discovered that he was related to the most successful slave-trading family in U.S. history, responsible for transporting at least ten thousand Africans. This is his memoir of the journey in which ten family members retraced their ancestors' steps through the notorious triangle trade route—from New England to West Africa to Cuba—and uncovered the hidden history of New England and the other northern states.
"Shane White and Graham White's book is a joy." -Branford Marsalis
The singing of slaves on plantations, while chopping weeds in cotton fields, or while working at a corn shucking; the sound of a slave preacher delivering a sermon or an elderly slave telling Brer Rabbit stories to children; newly freed blacks exchanging greetings or whistling on southern city streets--all these and many more made up the sounds of slavery.
Shane White and Graham White break new ground and bring history vividly to life through an exploration of the varied and nuanced sounds of slavery. Moving through a complex soundscape, White and White use anecdotes and firsthand accounts to illuminate the depth of slave culture and history, where each sound played a critical role in defining the slave's world, expressing movments of joy, defiance, and pain. The authors also recover some of the surprise and shock these sounds evoked in white listeners--some dismissed them as primitive while others marveled at their skill and beauty. This book expands our historical ear from the 1700s through the 1850s and continues into the modern era, drawing connections between the rich aural history and such beloved American music as the blues. Allowing us to eavesdrop on the past, The Sounds of Slavery is the closest modern listeners will ever get to experiencing the diverse sounds that surrounded slave life.
During the American Revolution, thousands of slaves fled from their masters to find freedom with the British. Having emancipated themselves--and with rhetoric about the inalienable rights of free men ringing in their ears--these men and women struggled tenaciously to make liberty a reality in their lives.
This alternative narrative includes the stories of dozens of individuals--including Harry, one of George Washington's slaves--who left America and forged difficult new lives in far-flung corners of the British Empire. Written in the best tradition of history from the bottom up, this pathbreaking work will alter the way we think about the American Revolution.
The movie of the best-selling novel The Help is now available for home viewing on video. (Spoiler alert! Key plot points are divulged through the web links in this post.)
For anyone who missed it in the theater, I highly recommend you watch The Help. When the book came out in 2009 I read it and loved it… and I was troubled by it… and I reviewed it…
One reason I recommend The Help is that it tackles very challenging subjects with sincerity and an eye toward justice and truth. Another reason I recommend it is because of… disquieting thoughts [it raised in my mind].
There has been some serious controversy in connection with The Help. Check out Patricia Turner’s New York Times Op-Ed, "Dangerous White Stereotypes," and "Of Anger and Alternative Endings" in the Jackson Free Press. The author of the latter column (Donna Ladd, a white woman) accurately (in my opinion) points out that…
The Help just could not have ended as it did. Hilly, or her man, would have called the [White Citizens] Council on Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter. My guess is that Aibileen would have been severely beaten and never hired again in the state; anyone related to Skeeter would have been destroyed economically and at least one cross burned in her mama’s yard; and Minny would have been killed and her house burned.
I am a post-civil rights black woman whose Southern roots have been nearly erased by world travel and an adulthood spent raising a family in Michigan. I am supposed to be offended by the movie The Help for its simplification of the injustices of the Jim Crow South. But I am not.
Black and white people have both praised and vilified The Help. One of the most powerful statements comes from the Association of Black Women Historians. The authors list several troubling, false, and stereotypical portrayals in The Help:
Despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. We are specifically concerned about the representations of black life and the lack of attention given to sexual harassment and civil rights activism.
I respect the expertise and sincerity of the authors, and I’m troubled by one point they highlight:
We respect the stellar performances of the African American actresses in this film. Indeed, this statement is in no way a criticism of their talent.
How can the authors of this statement find it “unacceptable for either this book or this film to strip black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment” and then praise the performances of the black actors who chose to portray those very characters? If you disagree so strongly with a white woman writing this story and claim that The Help misrepresents both African American speech and culture, wouldn’t it be more consistent to criticize the African American actors who chose to star in the film?
According to the cover story in Entertainment Weekly (#1167, August 12, 2011), Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer “love the characters of Aibileen and Minny, which makes having to defend them to detractors a strange and uneasy burden.” Spencer says,
I am thrilled to be playing this woman. She is a human being with the breadth and depth of emotions, and she is a contributing member of society. It should not be ‘Why is Viola Davis playing a maid in 2011?’ I think it should be ‘Viola Davis plays a maid and she gives the f—king performance of her life.’
I continue to think about The Help and the reasons I loved it and the reasons it troubled me. Jackson, Mississippi was a terribly racist city in the 1960′s when this story takes place. In far too many ways, Jackson (like the rest of our nation) still has such a very long way to go. Racism and hatred are alive and well (note the recent, brutal murder in Jackson of James Anderson). But ultimately I land on the side of those who recommend that people read or watch The Help. Love it or hate it or something in between, The Help, as pointed out by Jamia Wilson in her powerful and balanced article (she points out both positive and negative aspects) for Good Culture, inspires us to think and talk about race. That fact alone–that I continue to ponder the issues it raises (and I suspect anyone who has read the book or watched the film does as well)–is, in my opinion, the most redeeming quality about The Help.
NOW, one more point. I cannot stress enough how much I hope that people — particularly white people — will seek out other books by black writers on the subject of black domestic workers. The Association of Black Women Historians included a list of ten books at the end of their Open Statement to the Fans of The Help that they recommend. I’d like to highlight one of those books that I recently read; one that is published by my publisher, Beacon Press.
I loved Like One of the Family by Alice Childress [read an excerpt here]. This novel is a series of vignettes; brief conversations between Mildred, a black domestic worker, and her friend Marge. Childress creates a vivid image of the life of a black working woman in New York in the 1950s. It is funny, sarcastic, outspoken, and rings with truth. Here’s a brief excerpt:
‘Mrs. M…, what is the matter, you look so grieved and talk so strange ’til I don’t know what to think?’ She looked at me accusingly and said, ‘I’m afraid to say anything to you, Mildred. It seems that every time I open my mouth something wrong comes out and you have to correct me. It makes me very nervous because the last thing I want to do is hurt your feelings. I mean well, but I guess that isn’t enough. I try to do the right thing and since it keeps coming out wrong I figured I’d just keep quiet. I… I… want to get along but I don’t know how.’
Marge, in that minute I understood her better and it came to my mind that she was doing her best to make me comfortable and havin’ a doggone hard go of it. After all, everything she’s ever been taught adds up to her being better than me in every way and on her own she had to find out that this was wrong… That’s right, she was tryin’ to treat me very special because she still felt a bit superior but wanted me to know that she admired me just the same.
‘Mrs. M…,’ I said, ‘you just treat me like you would anybody else that might be workin’ for you in any kind of job. Don’t be afraid to talk to me because if you say the wrong thing I promise to correct you, and if you want to get along you won’t mind me doing so.’
This excerpt captures for me some of the challenges with The Help. Katherine Stockett did her best to write a book that would, well, help. It is flawed, as are all books, but it is her story; the story of a time and a place and people written from the perspective of a white woman. Balance The Help with Like One of the Family or one of many books about that time and place. Your knowledge and curiosity will grow. That is a good thing.
And then talk about race… which is one real value of The Help.
Photo: Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer in 'The Help' (courtesy of Dreamworks)
Today, April 4, 2011, is the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. Two years ago I attended the White Privilege Conference in Memphis. My conference roommate Michael and I, along with two students at the college where he works, drove downtown to the Lorraine Motel, now home to the National Civil Rights Museum.
After Dr. King's death the Lorraine Motel plunged into an understandable downward spiral. Much like Memphis, I suspect, the motel would understandably never be the same. Eventually, a group of Memphis citizens formed the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation and began the work that resulted in the 1991 opening of the museum and the 1999 purchase of the properties across the street from which the shot was fired that killed Dr. King.
The tour begins with a showing of the 2009 Academy Award nominated documentary short film The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306, the story of Reverend Samuel "Billy" Kyles, the man who stood next to Dr. King on the balcony when he was shot.
One of the most powerful experiences for me during the tour was stepping onto a bus inside the museum and seeing the cast figure of Rosa Parks sitting resolute, knowing that three other black folks in her row had left their seats so a white person could have a seat with no black people in the same row. Mrs. Parks' refusal to give up her seat was a defining moment, a turning point, in the civil rights movement.
Soon, standing behind the glass partition that has been erected between rooms 306 and 307 just a few feet from where Dr. King was shot took that horrible event from forty-one years ago and brought it powerfully into my present.
We then walked across the street to the building from which the fatal shot was fired. Looking back across the street toward the Lorraine I'm reminded of the feeling I've had at other significant historical sites.
It is all so small.
Plymouth Rock, Ford's Theater, Dealey Plaza, the Lorraine Motel; the scale is all so very human. The choice to perpetrate either harm or healing is always such a small, human one.
Another feeling I've had is that Dr. King has become an icon for racial harmony and reconciliation. "I have a dream today…"
People who, when I was a child, considered King a radical threat to national security now enjoy the day off for the MLK holiday. Most major cities now have streets named after him; even those where he once spoke against segregation and oppression against black people. Everyone loves Martin and use his name as they promote peace and racial justice (whether they believe in it or work for it or not).
Hey, I'm the first to shout from the mountain top that race relations are better now than when I was in junior high school during the Watts Race Riots. But I wonder what King would think if he were alive today. It seems to me that we have reduced the "I have a dream" man to an acceptable "pablum" symbol for pretty much everybody; particularly white people. We ignore his serious critique of the system of white supremacy in America. We ignore all that was radical about him in favor of our Kumbaya image of him. What we sacrifice as a result is the challenge of viewing ourselves in the stark mirror he held before us.
If King were alive today, I believe he would hold that mirror high and it would be quite an uncomfortable image for Americans to behold. King once said,
"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life's roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
In 1967, King warned us against the "glaring contrast of poverty and wealth" that has only grown grossly wider today. So many people are being forced into poverty. Our environment is being destroyed. I suspect, no, believe, that King would be leading marches in resistance.
Today we have military troops in many countries around the world. We have initiated wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. In 1967, King said the United States was "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world." What is different today? I have no doubt that Dr. King would oppose such oppression.
Lots of folks feel comfortable believing in King's dream of a wonderful world where the color of our skin matters less than the content of our character. Fewer are comfortable discussing King's proposition that our country was on "the wrong side of a world revolution" of oppressed peoples.
I encourage you to ponder how we can continue to blind ourselves to Dr. King's radical beliefs and still pretend to honor him. On the anniversary of his death, we honor how his life changed America.
Mark Twain defined a “classic” book as one “which people praise and don’t read.” He should know. How many of you have read Huckleberry Finn? This “classic” has been condemned, banned, or people attempted to ban it, in a variety of locations, and for various reasons, since it was first published in 1885. Back then it was banned because Twain had the audacity to create a character, Jim, who was not only black, but as human–and as fully developed–as the other major characters in the story. Jim is not only fully human, but the hero of the story. It ran contrary to everything white Americans had been raised to believe; that white America had been built upon since its founding.
When I was in junior high school in the 1960′s, several of my black classmates wanted the book banned from our school library for a different reason: because Twain regularly refers to Jim with the “n” word, which they found deeply offensive. Many teachers in K-12 classes struggle with how to teach this masterpiece, about which Hemingway said, “All American writing comes from that.” It is challenging to explain to kids today the context in which Huck Finn was written. I believe I understand the difficulties teachers face.
Caveat: in the interest of full disclosure, I’m a white man writing about a book that was written by a white man–albeit one who died 100 years ago in a very different era. I encourage readers to ponder these facts as you consider my words. I also encourage you to consider what others have written, like Princeton Professor Melissa Harris-Perry or author Earl Ofari Hutchinson for instance. Further disclosure: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the best book I’ve ever read. No one else can ever write the “Classic American Novel.” It has already been published. This is it.
A new version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is now being published by New South Books. Twain scholar Alan Gribben is the editor. He has replaced the “n” word with the word “slave.” I’m sure Dr. Gribben and New South Books have the noblest of intentions; to get Twain back into K-12 classrooms.
And there are many reasons why this is a really bad idea. I’ll focus on two:
Utilizing the word “slave” perpetuates one of the dehumanizing aspects of the system of slavery. Describing someone who was owned by another as a “slave” strips away her or his humanity–reduces that person to a commodity. They were enslaved people, not slaves.
I understand the challenge that educators face, but what are classrooms for if not to struggle with difficult subjects in order to wrestle with them? The one way we will finally heal from the legacy of slavery is to talk about all aspects of it no matter how difficult, awkward, and hurtful those conversations may be. Hiding behind an alternative word–and a poorly chosen one at that–does not teach students to deal honestly with truth; it does nothing to teach people to struggle together with difficult subjects; it does nothing to help with healing from the historic trauma that continues to afflict the people of the United States. It perpetuates injustice and ignorance.
When my grandchildren are old enough to enjoy and learn from Huckleberry Finn I hope they’ll read it the way Twain wrote it. I trust their parents–and hopefully their teachers–to work with them to understand the context of the times in which Twain lived and wrote, the horrible system of slavery that drove the entire economy of our nation, and why it is important to understand and talk about these issues.
We’ve all heard that the roads in Hell are paved with good intentions. This new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a well-intentioned mistake. Read the original. Then read it–and discuss it–with your children.
My friend Sharon Morgan was recently leaving the post office near her new home in a small, rural town in New York when a white guy yelled at her from his car, "F#@k that dumb ass Obama!" and sped away. I'm sure there are several factors that contributed to his stupid, stupid outburst. In addition to maybe politics, probably sexism, definitely an upbringing in which he didn't learn common decency or respect, and a few others, one factor was racism. I have no idea what bothers him more, having a black president or having a black woman living in his almost-completely white town.
President Obama has nominated Goodwin Liu, an Associate Dean and Professor of Law at UC Berkeley School of Law, to serve on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Opponents have seized upon comments Liu made during a panel discussion on May 6, 2008 following a screening of Traces of the Trade at the Newseum in Washington, DC that was sponsored by the Council on Foundations (I wrote about the event here).
The distinguished panel was moderated by Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree and PBS Senior Correspondent Judy Woodruff. Panelists discussed the major themes in the film and how they connect to the world of philanthropy; how foundations can effectively facilitate discussions on race, the legacy of slavery, and the need for healing. When government lacks the capacity–or will–to lead the way in creating a more just world, how can we best encourage grass roots leadership in undoing racism and other forms of oppression.
Goodwin Liu’s comments were right in line with these themes. Yet if you Google "Goodwin Liu, Traces of the Trade" you'll find several links to a YouTube video clip, just over 2 minutes in length, titled "Obama Appeals Court Nominee – Goodwin Liu – on Reparations for Slavery." You’ll find an article by Ed Whelan, prominent conservative legal analyst and blogger, in which he claims Liu "... would make those who were not complicit in slavery pay the price of his grandiose reparations project." You’ll find many other bloggers chiming in.
But if you watch the entire discussion (which you can download here) you’ll find that what Liu was advocating in saying that each of us has a moral duty to make things right is that,
...instead of looking for the single national strategy, which is what everybody always looks for, think about what you can do on a much smaller scale in much smaller communities, around specific problems that people face, whether it’s in their schools, in their workplaces, access to health care, in their housing; whatever it may be.
For far too long we have allowed extremists and the media to define "reparation" for historic slavery as that "single national strategy" in which people who never enslaved anyone pay the price for checks being written to people who were never themselves enslaved. Such a definition serves well those who rely on division and controversy to serve their own ends. But it isn't helpful to those who want to make a positive difference in the world.
When a writer as profoundly able as Plante pens a lament for his lost companion, the result is a fierce encapsulation of grief, the fundamentally private wrought wrenchingly public. This sublime remembrance - more a compilation of memory fragments than a linear life story - evokes a whole man (in truth, two whole men).
My first thought when I heard the voice shout out “You lie!” during President Obama’s speech before Congress last week was that whichever kook had been so inappropriate was surely being escorted out from the spectator’s gallery by security officials posthaste.
Like everyone else, I learned the next morning that it was a U.S. Congressman from South Carolina who had been so rude. Then several days later Jimmy Carter said on NBC that “an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man.”
Like many Americans, I have followed closely the story of the arrest of Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., by Cambridge police officer Sgt. James Crowley for disorderly conduct. This is, as Dr. Gates said during a CNN interview on July 22, "an educational opportunity for America."
Two significant messages loom large in this educational opportunity. First, based on the wildly different responses to this story-- from writers black and white, conservative and liberal-- can we all agree to set aside the bogus notion that we are a "post-racial" nation? This case is about race. We're talking about it. We disagree.
Separate from the facts in this particular case, racial profiling is alive and well in America. According to the ACLU report The Persistence Of Racial And Ethnic Profiling In The United States, released just a few weeks ago, "Indeed, data and anecdotal information from across the country reveal that racial minorities continue to be unfairly victimized when authorities investigate, stop, frisk, or search them based upon subjective identity-based characteristics rather than identifiable evidence of illegal activity. Victims continue to be racially or ethnically profiled while they work, drive, shop, pray, travel, and stand on the street."
Second, most white people remain largely oblivious to the systemic racism that results in the regular occurrence of such incidents all over our nation. It isn't "in our face," doesn't appear to impact us, and we've been socialized not to see it. Most white people consider ourselves to be not racist. We have good intentions toward people of color. But good intentions are irrelevant when the outcomes are unjust and inequitable.
Does anyone out there know Chris Matthews, host of Hardball on MSNBC? I'd like to send him a copy of my book, Inheriting the Trade. My impression is that, like my own, his education lacked some aspects of our nation's history that have been kept hidden from students.
Most of you know that last week the United States Senate unanimously passed S. Con. Res. 26 apologizing for the enslavement and racial segregation of African-Americans.
I wrote about this–so won't repeat myself–on June 15. Read my post here. Also read my cousin James DeWolf Perry's excellent post here about why apologies are both important and troublesome.
My focus today is on the mixed reaction the apology has received. Chris Matthews certainly had a strong reaction. Watch as he interviews Reps. Steve Cohen and Jim Clyburn, embedded after the jump.
The inauguration of Barack Obama represents hope but not simply for a change from the policies, actions, and directions of the recent past with which I’ve disagreed and found offensive and disheartening. My hope is for the healing of wounds that have been inflicted and experienced over centuries in America. Our nation has a complicated and checkered past. While building a nation based on the ideals of freedom, equality, and justice, and offering high hopes and dreams to people from around the world, those in power have also stolen land from, and annihilated, indigenous people. They enslaved African people. They have oppressed people of Asian and Hispanic descent and discriminated against people based on their religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities. This historic moment of change, when Barack Obama takes the oath of office and becomes our president, offers great opportunity.
My own family's history mirrors that of America's in many ways. I'm a white man whose ancestors terrorized and killed American Indians in King Philip's War in the 17th century. I'm related to the most successful slave-trading family in American history. Three generations of DeWolfs from Rhode Island, over the course of five decades, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, brought 10,000 African people in chains to the Caribbean islands, and North and South America. They received a political favor from President Thomas Jefferson that allowed them to continue their evil commerce in human flesh long after Rhode Island declared the slave trade illegal. The most successful, James DeWolf, became a United States Senator from Rhode Island in 1821. When he died in 1837 he was reportedly the second richest man in America.
Others of my ancestors were active abolitionists. Calvin DeWolf helped found the Anti-Slavery Society of Illinois in 1839 and was indicted in 1858 for aiding in the escape of a fugitive slave. They've been farmers, carpenters, ministers, lawyers, writers, secretaries, and sales people. Like so many other families they were the mothers, fathers, daughters and sons of America.
Oregon—where I live—held its primary election on May 20. For the first time since I moved here for college in 1972, the primary actually meant something to the presidential contest. Always in the past our primary is so late in the game that the presidential candidates for both parties have already been crowned. This exceedingly white state handed a man of color an 18-point margin of victory over a woman. That same day, far across the country in Kentucky, voters there handed that same woman a 35-point victory over the man of color.
Also that day I received an article in the mail from my father about Jackie Robinson who, while serving in the army, stationed in Texas, was court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a bus in 1944. At UCLA a few years earlier Robinson was the first athlete to earn varsity letters in four sports (football, basketball, baseball, and track). When he enlisted in the army it was with great fanfare. Many historians believe that Robinson's trial and acquittal had a strong impact on President Harry Truman and led to his integrating the military in 1948.
Robinson first donned a Dodger uniform and trotted onto the field on April 15, 1947. Two reasons my father and I share a strong interest in Jackie Robinson are, first, we're life-long Dodger fans, and second, I was born seven years to the day after Jackie's first Dodger game.
The snow is falling outside the home several of us have rented in Park City, Utah, to attend the Sundance Film Festival in support of our cousin Katrina Browne’s film Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. It is 19 degrees outside, which is warmer than it has been. The cold and the white stuff haven’t diminished the size of the audiences in the films I’ve seen so far.
I’ve not been to this or any other film festival outside my hometown before. I doubt that I ever would have were it not for the high honor of having Sundance select for competition the film that features our family struggling with the legacy of slavery by exposing New England’s—and our own ancestors’—complicity in the slave trade.
The film premiered here, appropriately enough, on Monday, January 21: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We were honored by the presence of Congressman John Conyers, Jr., Chair of the House Judiciary Committee. On Monday morning, he participated on a panel dedicated to the message and mission of Traces of the Trade, and attended the film’s premiere that night. It was particularly significant to be with the man who introduced the legislation—four days after Dr. King’s assassination—that ultimately resulted in the establishment of the national holiday fifteen years later in 1983. Conyers has introduced legislation (H.R. 40) that would establish a commission to study the legacy of slavery and possible remedieseach session since 1989. It has never had a hearing until last month. As Chair of Judiciary, he is finally in a position to move this important legislation forward that has languished for so long.
Americans love to celebrate. We commemorate historic events (Thanksgiving, Independence Day) and people (Presidents Day, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day). But few are aware of the significance of January 1, 2008: the 200th Anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the United States. We tend to remember the end of the institution of slavery as one result of the Civil War. African Americans have commemorated Juneteenth, a celebration of the day, on June 19, 1865, when slaves in Texas were finally told about the Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years after it was implemented. But America has all but ignored the date that marks the end of the slave trade.
Here in the United States we are doing precious little to mark the occasion of our equivalent historical watershed event. To my knowledge, the only official action toward commemorating the date, a bill to establish a commission to “ensure a suitable national observance of the bicentennial anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade” (H.R. 3432), was introduced in August 2007, passed in the House (October) and the Senate (December 19 ), but with all funding eliminated. It remains to be seen whether this remains an ineffectual symbolic gesture or if funding will be forthcoming in 2008, obviously after the January 1 anniversary. Beyond that, the only government-sponsored event planned, of which I'm aware, is a public symposium hosted by the National Archives on January 10.
One can reasonably argue that the law to end the slave trade was less than effective. Enforcement efforts were often half-hearted; those who continued trading illegally did so with vigor, particularly prior to 1820 when the penalty for conviction of slave trading became death. (Even this change to the law was largely toothless, as the penalty was only applied once, during the Civil War). Yet the 1808 law was a turning point. It helped energize the abolition movement and provided government affirmation that slave trading was not only immoral but criminal.