Get Over It, pt. 2 - It Was a Long Time Ago
Welcome to the second installment of Get Over It,wherein your boy confronts the common arguments people make when they tell Black people to “get over” slavery in the United States. Installment 1 is here. I’m trying to do some educating here, so please reblog and share with your friends. Sorry for the long wait between pt.1 and pt. 2, I just wanted to make sure I had all the right sources.
Before I move on to my second section, let me just say one thing and ask one question:
1. People often compare the slavery internal to Africa to the transatlantic slave trade. I addressed that a little bit last time, but we should also note that in Africa, most slavery was not heritable. That is to say that the children of slaves were born free.
2. What is the intention of persons who tell Blacks to “get over” the grand injustice of slavery?
What do you think? I have a number of ideas, but I just want it out there as thought experiment.
Okay. Onto the second common argument that Black people should just “get over it” - It Was a Long Time Ago
This is pretty straight forward. Slavery in the United States formally ended in 1865. Soon, it will be 2015. Which means that slavery ended 150 years ago. Surely, that’s enough time for old wounds to heal, right?
Not so fast. Slavery, as I addressed in my previous post, was made possible by a systematic condition of people to servitude. They were prevented from being educated, from accumulating property or wealth, from accessing anything that we would now call “les droits des hommes” because they did not have rights-in-person over themselves.
They did not even have a history after slavery. They did not have a place they could call home. Where as other Americans could say that they were Irish American, or Polish American, or German American. All that Blacks knew was that at some point, their ancestors had been taken from Africa.
They were released from one brutal system into a slightly less brutal system. There were Jim Crow laws (examples here) that were designed to prevent Negroes from:
- receiving adequate medical care
-fully accessing the human right of mobility
-mixing with white society
- starting businesses
Now, often Blacks would do these things in spite of societal forces, but often at the risk of their personal safety and indeed, their lives. Statistic from the lynchings we know about tell us that Blacks were lynched at a rate of 92/year for the years between 1882 and 1900 (inclusive). Many, because they could not access wealth/capital, or were barred from many professions, were forced into sharecropping. This often entailed making just enough money to live while turning most of the fruits of ones labor over to a white property owner, with strict penalties for deviations from the contract. This functioned as a system of economic enslavement
These new arrangements did not function fairly or harmoniously. Black sharecroppers suffered a devastating one-two punch in the 1870s, as cotton prices skidded and Redeemer governments dismantled legal protections that blacks had gained from the Reconstruction regimes. The only collateral that a poor cropper could use to obtain credit was the crop that he intended to plant. He thereby obliged himself to plant whatever his creditor wanted him to plant, and the one crop in the cotton South that could most readily be converted into cash was cotton. Crossroads stores emerged across the rural South to provide croppers with food, clothing, and other merchandise. In exchange, merchants and landlords (who were often the same person) received first legal claim to the growing cotton crop. A vicious cycle resulted. Thanks to the crop-lien system, the South increasingly produced too little food and too much cotton. Falling cotton prices and long-term labor indebtedness resulted. As Eric Foner has noted, “the credit system that grew up alongside sharecropping quickly undermined its promise of autonomy.”
My point is, even if Blacks had been freed with access to the full opportunities provided by the US Constitution, they would still have been disadvantaged by the lack of any wealth, an economic base, educations, and opportunities. But that wasn’t the case - Blacks were subjected to decades of cruel and isolated treatment that was enshrined by law. I cannot begin to here address the anthropological and sociological ramifications of racist beliefs and feelings held by the whole country.
Allow me to restate my point: all other intervening history aside, the African American community is still recovering from slavery.
To forget slavery would be to forget a part of our history, a history that made the group of people that we now call African Americans. Let me put that another way:
- without the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Black people as you and I understand them do not exist. The group, the category would never have been created. Slavery, and the legal and cultural systems that supported it made possible the current status of race relations in the United States. -
Slavery is the root of the problem here, and I’d contend that people who want to erase it from history want to be able to explain it in a way that does not put any responsibility on them or their predecessors. This is the same kind of thinking that allows Whites to say “well, I didn’t personally own any slaves, I’m not a racist, so don’t blame me for them” while turning around and saying “well, I’m not racist, but statistically, Blacks commit more crimes, so I’m right to suspect them.” Guilt by association applies to others, not to protestant-ethic-having, rugged-individualism-believing, sovereign-individual-whites.
My claim is this: remembering slavery isn’t about holding on to old grudges. It’s about contextualizing our experience and history in this country. It’s about a reasonable suspicion of a system that has systematically oppressed a people that it created for over four centuries.
It’s not about the length of time, it’s about context. It’s about history, and it’s about reality. We remember the Revolutionary War, but not that it was a contradiction-in-terms. We remember the Civil War, but not the evil that made it necessary or relevant. To be frank, recalling the glory of war without its meaning, context, or end is to reduce it to bloodsport. To recall the war without recalling promises abandoned, the blood spilled, or the people forgotten, is to pull the war from history.
It is a vision of these wars in which Black people are irrelevant. To deny discussion of slavery is to deny the history and validity of Black people. It is the willful sale of Black lives for comfort’s sake. I’m not being melodramatic. African American soldiers have fought in every war the United States has been party to. There is no way to talk about the truth of those Black soldiers without talking about slavery. You’d have to somehow ignore the many African Americans who fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War because they were promised freedom upon victory.
You’d have to forget the noble United States Colored Troops who fought in the Civil War. Who fought in critical battles of the latter half of the Civil War. This brings me to another common myth: Black people should be grateful because it was White people from the North who fought and died to free them.
Yes, white soldiers fought in the Civil War. A couple things about that:
- You don’t get to perform a mind-boggling injustice for centuries, then stop, and have Black people throw parties in your honor. Sorry.
- As I said, Black soldiers from the US Bureau of Colored Troops fought in critical battles in all theatres of the War. Ulysses S. Grant said: "By arming the negro we have added a powerful ally."
- Black Troops were among the first into Richmond when the Confederate capital fell.
- Multiple contemporary sources describe the Union victory with phrases like “Extra Glorious! Fall of Richmond! Captured by the Black Troops!” That’s from the Washington National Republican, April 3, 1865, and you can read it for yourself here
"We, the colored soldiers, have fairly won our rights by loyalty and bravery — shall we obtain them? If we are refused now, we shall demand them." |Sgt. Maj. William McCeslin; 29th U.S.C.T.
We fought for our own freedoms, securing victory and reuniting the country in the process. Black people need be grateful to no one but their own Black ancestors for their current freedom, something which the United States has tried to take from them countless times over in the years since.
A key method of taking our freedom is taking the memory of our valorous deeds in winning the Civil War. Anyone who attempts to tell you otherwise about our history, or tells you that the crime of slavery was undone by the white blood spilled in the Civil is committing the deadly crime of forgetting. They are as damaging to us and reifying to white supremacy as any other entity involved.
Because the forgetting is intentional. It’s something our culture is actively pursuing. It’s called “surrogation.” It is a cultural process designed to preserve the American self-image. A dedication to freedom, to the American Dream, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in a world where we have finally decided that Blacks are people is contradicted by the history of slavery and racism. So, for the American Myth to stand, we must forget the reality of slavery. For a more detailed explanation of this process, by which cultural memory is forgotten, reinvented, and restored (particularly through performance) try reading Cities of the Dead by Joseph Roach.
Slavery is one of the founding sins of this nation. It made this nation possible. From Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations:
America begins in black plunder and white democracy, two features that are not contradictory but complementary. “The men who came together to found the independent United States, dedicated to freedom and equality, either held slaves or were willing to join hands with those who did,” the historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote. “None of them felt entirely comfortable about the fact, but neither did they feel responsible for it. Most of them had inherited both their slaves and their attachment to freedom from an earlier generation, and they knew the two were not unconnected.”
Asking those people whose lives have been determined and defined in large part by the history of slavery in this country to forget this is unfair and irresponsible. But the thing is, that includes everyone in this country. If the suffering of Americans is to be remembered, it is to be remembered. That includes the colonists who suffered under British Imperialism and the Blacks that suffered under slavery. It includes the suffering of the Chinese and the Irish and everyone.
Racism isn’t over in America. Slavery era mentalities aren’t gone. And each and every one of us owes it to ourselves to remember all of our history, even the ugly parts. Especially the ugly parts. How else are we to learn?
Let me end as I began, by asking a question and making a statement.
1. What is the statute of limitations for aggravated assault? How about theft? What about rape? Human trafficking? Murder? How long should a nation be accountable for each of those crimes committed millions of times over?
2. Black people do not want to live in the past, but we do not want to forget our past either. Perhaps what we do want is that now and in the future that we should be treated as full citizens in the country our ancestors built. That is a right we have been denied since slavery.
This post ended up much longer than I anticipated. I’ll address no living slavein pt. 3