Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A long, long time ago...when we were slaves

In memory of the wonderful Howard Zinn, I've been re-listening to the audio version of his People's History of the United States, which focuses on the 20th century. (The complete print edition of the classic work begins in 1492) The book opens by discussing African Americans' struggle for civil rights. In typical Zinn style, the writing is frank and unflinching. It is impossible to not be moved. The opening section of Zinn's work is especially personal to me as a black descendant of enslaved Africans and as the GenX progeny of the civil rights movement. As I listened to recounts of violence, government-supported racism, humiliations and subversions of rights and humanity, I was struck that many of these things took place a handful of years before I was born in late 1969. Many of them happened after. It is a shock to be reminded that some of the ugliest illustrations of national racism happened within my lifetime, my husband's lifetime (he was born in 1961), and certainly within that of my parents and grandparents. My paternal grandparents in Mississippi were well into their 60s before the Civil Rights Act was signed. It is far too easy to forget that in historical and societal terms, the days of virulent, naked racism are not so far in the past. Indeed, slavery, one of America's original sins, is not that far in the past. That we try to push them there prematurely, in a race to post-racialism, does us no favors, either.
Slavery and the overt and violent racism that continued through more than half of the 20th century are significant parts of our recent history that continue to impact the black experience yet today. When I say "recent history," consider that America is a very young country. Most all of our history is recent if you compare our stories to those of England or Japan or France. Of course, in our modern minds, 1862 (when the first emancipation proclamation was issued) might as well be 20 B.C. But in reality--in terms of familial connections--the distance between slavery and Jim Crow and the present isn't so far.
I am 40 years old. My father grew up in the South, during the Jim Crow era. His parents could not vote. His paternal grandfather was born less than five years after the 14th amendment was ratified. His paternal great-grandfather was born, and lived a significant part of his adult life, in slavery. Consider how families share stories. Think of how parents speak about their childhoods and the experiences that impacted their development. I learned about the Civil Rights Movement from those who participated in it. My father could have learned about the horrors of Reconstruction from those who were there. Slavery...Jim Crow...the Civil Rights Movement...these are not distant occurrences to be viewed dispassionately for most black Americans. These are woven into our family stories. They are not history. They are embedded in our familial memory and it is not so easy for us to dismiss them.
For that reason, I think it is easier for African Americans to understand the connection between the inequities of the (not so) past and the pathologies and challenges of our community's present. When Limbaugh types crow about the playing field being level, we question how equal our chances really could be when our grandparents could not even take part in our nation's democratic process, when our parents attended segregated schools and had opportunities closed to them. The forefathers and foremothers of white Americans were afforded a "head start" merely by being white. My forefathers and foremothers were purposely held behind. We are only just beginning to make up the difference.
I don't advocate wallowing in past racial grievances merely to induce white guilt and position African Americans as perpetual victims. I don't mention slavery and the overt racism that followed it as excuses. I simply acknowledge them as factors that have shaped my country and my place in it. You cannot understand the present without understanding the past. You cannot talk about black America without talking about slavery and least not yet.
I notice, though, that my white friends are far more emotionally disconnected from the legacy of slavery and post-Civil War racism than I am. That's not surprising, of course. I thought of this last week when talking with a white friend about my genealogy research. She was eager to know if I had discovered that my relatives were NOT slaves. It is certainly possible to have free blacks among one's ancestors, but I found my friend's question odd. This was not the first time I had been asked something similar by a white person--always a white person. It is as if learning that my relatives were free--however unlikely that is--would make her feel better. The question seeks a prettier version of a likely history.
There is also an assumption that my family would not already know whether or not our ancestors were free. I imagine the thinking goes that since slavery was so, so long ago, this information is lost to family memory. I remember a white former coworker grumbling about black people who call themselves descendants of enslaved Africans. There is no way they could know that! You shouldn't say it if you don't know for sure. But, as I demonstrated, my father could have learned what life was like for slaves from his grandfather, who learned from his father, who learned first hand.
The desire of the majority culture to put extra space between the worst of America's past racism and the present could be why our national dialogue on race continues to bear so little fruit. The eagerness to "move on" and erase our ugly past means America obsessively ignores the roots of current racial inequities. You can't fix a problem if you are blind to what created it. Besides, some things are too ugly to be forgotten. Some things we need to remember so that they never happen again.


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