I’ve just read Tera W. Hunter’s New York Time’s piece, Putting an Antebellum Myth to Rest (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/02/opinion/putting-an-antebellum-myth-about-slave-families-to-rest.html). Dr. Hunter, a professor of African-American studies at Princeton, has been compelled to dispel the myth
regurgitated by The Marriage Vow, a document signed by two Republican presidential candidates claiming that a child born into slavery had a better chance of being raised by both mother and father than an African-American child born today – in the age of Obama. As I see it, a child born today stands the same chance of being slapped savagely upside the head with societal ignorance and stupidity as a black child born in 1860. Here we are, a decade beyond the last millennium, in specious debate of the upside of slavery.
My heart aches along with many other hearts that have been burdened far too long with the shroud that has been placed over historical recognition. No, I don’t seek reparations for slavery, nor do I seek the hides of the children and ancestors of former slave owners. We are so far removed from this country’s original sin that I would think it would be all the more simple for some groups to at least acknowledge this hideous institution by getting the history right. But, alas, we are doomed to a continuous war between the states of fact and fiction.
We could take a page from the history of Paris, France. A city so ravaged by fear and anti- Semitic sentiment in the dark days of WW II that 70,000 Parisian Jews and other “undesirables” were documented and rounded up to be sent (most to their deaths) to German concentration camps. Now, it is a city with a vibrant Jewish quarter that has been given the respect of honest acknowledgment of Vichy crimes against humanity. Not every Parisian gentile was Vichy as not every white southerner a slaveholder. Intelligence favors the truth here. The French have come to terms with their past and remain willing to be
frank about French history. Throughout the Marais district (Jewish quarter) plaques can be seen (some on schools) designating places of deportation. These plaques can frequently be spotted (if you’re looking) throughout the entire city; tangible testimonials to a history determined not to be repeated. There is also the Shoah Memorial, a museum dedicated to continuing the ongoing dialogue on hate and its manifestations. I found myself not feeling inconvenienced with the tight, airport-like security at the museum’s front door. Then, I felt chagrin at acceptance of this necessity in the face of an ancient hate. In the courtyard there is an enormous bronze cylinder – a concrete representation of the chimneys used in German death camps inscribed with the names of those Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. The walls containing the names of those who were deported stand in mute protest to the horrors of the time. I was particularly awestruck at the drawings of the Jewish children – the unvarnished code of youth and beautiful innocence – irrepressible in its need to inform. The Shoah Memorial is dedicated to the purpose of educating those who are in danger of becoming removed from history.
And what do we have? Apologists who proudly parade the confederate flag on their bumpers telling the world the flag honors “ heritage not hate.” In the parlance of my students, “WTF!” What is southern the heritage if not one of denial of rights to other human beings, profiteers who gained from the enslavement of others and those who “innocently” followed the orders of the day – lacking courage to face a rough and ugly truth?
Slavery was ugly but like the sore in Langston Hughes’s Dream Deferred, slavery needs to be acknowledged for what it was. If not, the sore simply festers, crusting over with denial and wishful thinking – a boil on the heart of this country that will threaten explosion once it cannot sustain another “Marriage Vow” or some pseudo-politician justifying some portion of this evil institution. (What goodness can be found in the practice of owning another human being?)
I’ve lived long enough to know that there is more in our shared history that binds than that which tears asunder. But this knowledge too sags under the heavy load of a continued
prejudice that dresses in the ornate robes of power. And I am frightened as I watch these tools of an outdated philosophy proudly (if idiotically) parade their ignorance before a public in need of honest guidance. The main tool we have in our arsenal against ignorance is the intelligent refutation of Dr. Hunter and others like her who are driven to keep the “chimneys” of our country’s personal Shoah visible – linking all of us in a shared determination of – Never Again.