When is Long Ago Just Too Far Ago?

Comic: We know why y'all keep trying to distance yourselves from slavery - The Black Youth ProjectConventionally and conveniently, we tend to deflect or ignore in our public discourse painful or unpleasant or embarrassing events. Perhaps that is simply human nature. Often that discourse or what remains of it is conducted with language references that envelop the topic or characterize it as unimaginable at present and a phenomenon in history from long ago.  This observation of proscriptive differential infects most dialogue about slavery and race.

Generally, in ancient Greece (as early as 425 BC), there were two types of slaves: some were deemed personal possessions while others were considered bonded to the land for agriculture or mining. Most who were enslaved were enemies captured in battle or rebels forced into labor as punishment. Others were debtors working off their obligations.

Slavery was an accepted practice in ancient Greece, as in other societies of the time. Some Ancient Greek writers (including, most notably, Aristotle) described slavery as natural and even necessary. This paradigm was notably questioned in Socratic dialogues; the Stoics produced the first recorded condemnation of slavery

Slaves were legally prohibited from participating in politics, which was reserved for citizens.

The morality of slavery was questioned in 300 BC by one commentator:  “others however maintain that for one man to be another man’s master is contrary to nature, because it is only convention that makes the one a slave and the other a freeman and there is no difference between them by nature, and that therefore it is unjust, for it is based on force.”

Some voices in ancient Greece and Rome rose to advocate for better treatment of slaves but virtually none argued for its abolition. “Better treatment” requires that the dominant culture cedes or recognizes humanity previously denied.

The transport of “20 and odd” Africans kidnapped to a mainland American English colony in 1619 has become the reference date for slavery in the United States. That event, however, had earlier precedents, as early as the 1400s, and certainly the 1500s in Florida, to which Spanish explorers brought slaves. There is also evidence of a Spanish attempt to establish a colony with slaves in South Carolina in 1526.

The US history of slavery and its racist progeny has been the subject of denial, such as the Lost Cause and other color blind assertions. In contrast, the piecemeal but continuous emergence of documented violence toward Blacks and Native Americans amplified by Black Lives Matter is clearing the myopia. For example, two survivors of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, mob violence from 100 years ago testified at a congressional hearing. A recent article further clarified how narrow is the distance from slavery to the present day. Clint Smith, a New Orleans poet, authored How the Word is Passed, ruminating upon his personal realization about his connection to slavery for an interview with NPR (Slavery Wasn’t ‘Long Ago’: Clint Smith On The Disconnect In How We Tell History: NPR). The excerpts here connect the dots:

We are taught that the history of slavery is something that happened almost like when there were dinosaurs. But Smith notes that his grandfather’s grandfather was enslaved — and that this history that we are told was so long ago wasn’t, in fact, that long ago at all.

We are taught that the history of slavery is something that happened almost like when there were dinosaurs. But Smith notes that his grandfather’s grandfather was enslaved — and that this history that we are told was so long ago wasn’t, in fact, that long ago at all.

You know that the things that this country is telling you about your community and about people who look like you is wrong, but you don’t necessarily have the language or the history with which to explain it.

I was taught that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man who fought for the state and the people that he loved. I was taught that the Civil War was about states’ rights and that it was reflective of a failure to compromise when, in fact, all that had been happening in the decades prior to the Civil War were attempts to compromise, and what was compromised was the freedom of enslaved people.

Mr. Smith engaged in first-hand experiences as a means to plumb the measure of the way in which Lost Cause memes propagated celebration of a civil conflict that consumed many thousands of lives and perpetuated racial animus. As American as apple pie, he found the event surreal and cognitively dissonant.

There was so much joy and laughter and levity in a place that was honoring those who fought a war to keep my ancestors in chains, and that this event was celebrating the army that they fought that war for, that cause.

This was a Sons of Confederate Veterans Memorial Day celebration. And so you had a lot of people who were reenactors who were dressed in the garb of the Confederacy, who were singing the songs of the Confederacy and who were wearing paraphernalia of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who were wearing a vest and clothing that was sort of adorned with Confederate iconography. And the interesting part is that this is hundreds of people who are here for this event. And it felt like a family reunion, almost, that I was imposing on. And people sitting on lawn chairs and laughing and slapping each other’s backs and telling stories and kids running around playing catch around the trees. And so there was a sort of cognitive dissonance in the experience where there was so much joy and laughter and levity in a place that was honoring those who fought a war to keep my ancestors in chains, and that this event was celebrating the army that they fought that war for, that cause. It was a strange, strange experience in that way.

When long ago and far away flow together, the present and past meet in a context that offers a narrative where timelines may be visibly shortened to create a visual sense of immediacy and continuity for an individual to grasp his history and the one in which he finds himself.

The woman who opened the National Museum of African American History and Culture alongside the Obama family in 2016, who rang the bell to sort of signal the opening of this museum, was the daughter of an enslaved person — not the granddaughter, not the great-great-granddaughter, but the daughter of someone who had been born into slavery. And this is in 2016.

The woman who opened the National Museum of African American History and Culture alongside the Obama family in 2016, who rang the bell to sort of signal the opening of this museum, was the daughter of an enslaved person — not the granddaughter, not the great-great-granddaughter, but the daughter of someone who had been born into slavery. And this is in 2016. And so it’s a reminder that there are people still alive today who loved, who were raised by, who knew, who were in community with, people who had been born into chattel slavery.

There are no degrees of separation that can insulate everyone or make them impervious to recognition of the nation’s racial history. Individual and even familial experiences are touched somewhere. Ago is never so far ago to serve forever. Each of us has the capacity to remind one another and inform our own existence. Too often, something measured in time as long ago and far away is to be discovered in our present. History is today.

 

 

 

 

 



Categories: EDUCATION, Issues, National, politics, racial symbols

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