The point isn’t that American slavery is the exact moral or material equivalent of the Holocaust, but that our country’s “original sin” has not been fully, culturally processed.
A man with a wide smile appeared next to our table, seemingly out of nowhere, and introduced himself as the restaurant’s manager. We chatted about the proper pronunciation of “crawfish,” and the differences between the gumbos made on the bayou and in New Orleans, and when the subject turned to the Cabin, I asked him how it felt to run a place that used to house slaves.
“It’s history, and that’s all there is to it,” he said. “It’s not something we dwell on, or push out there for people to see. It is a touchy subject. We just want people to have a nice time when they come here, and to enjoy the food and the history. This is a place where everybody feels welcome.”
Salon has a provocative and wonderful feature by Peter Birkenhead about the tapestry that is historical memory, the slave-holding South, and contemporary conservatism. We have spent a good amount of time this past year exploring these issues, and have worked though such topics as the appropriateness of live action role-playing games as a means to "explore" chattel slavery and the Black Holocaust, historical tourism and slave cabins, and a yearning (by some) for the mythical black Confederate soldier.
Why We Still Can't Talk About Slavery seems like a fitting complement to a year-long conversation.
In all, it would seem that many of us have no use for such a flattening of history:
Later that day, at Destrehan, a former sugar plantation a few miles down, the guide neglected to mention that it was the site of the largest slave revolt in American history.
When I asked Angela da Silva, a professor of black history at Lindenwood University, and owner of the St. Louis-based National Black Tourism Network, for her thoughts, she said, “Jesus coming down off the cross couldn’t get me to stay in some gentrified slave cabin with a jacuzzi in it. The misery and pain that happened in those cabins … This is about shame.
People who own these places want the history to go away. But it won’t go away. And until we as black people insist on the story being told, no one has any incentive to change their business model.”
As Birkenhead beautifully details, the rise of the New Right and the Tea Party, the Republican Party's fetish for the Confederacy, its Lost Cause ideology, and embrace of States' Rights and nullification have brought questions of historical memory to the forefront of the public discourse during the 2012 presidential primary season.
Moreover, the literal white washing of the history of a traitorous Confederacy, what was a military state dedicated to racial tyranny, and a willful lie about the benevolence of whiteness, loom large in the Conservative political imagination. Those dreams are amplified and made more imminent when a black man is President of the United States, because for the populist conservative, neo-Confederate crowd, nothing could be more of an abomination.
For Tea Party GOP conservatives, the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism is inexorably tied to a Gone With the Wind, Redemption, race and reunion narrative. This tale has no use for such "inconveniences" as chattel slavery, white supremacy, the genocide of indigenous people, and racial pogroms.
The Reconstruction-era South didn't invent dishonesty, but its response to America's defining trauma has become a foundational lie, supporting an ever-growing edifice of false history. It’s a lie so big no one will forcefully challenge it, a lie that’s too big to fail. In the sesquicentennial year of the Civil War, the “stars and bars” fly over state capitals, proclamations are issued that honor the Confederacy without mentioning slavery, and commuters drive to work on highways named after white supremacists. And appeals to wounded pride and the lost values of imagined pasts are an everyday part of our political culture.
This should come as no surprise. Adults who dress up in Colonial era period clothing, believe that the Constitution is divinely inspired, and take the metaphor of "a shining city on the hill" as a get out of jail pass for America's shortcomings both at home and abroad, have little use for such facts. Selection bias, Fox News, and an embrace of a fantastical view of political and social reality, protects the Tea Party GOP faithful from any experience of cognitive dissonance.
Birkenhead concludes Why We Still Can't Talk About Slavery with a powerful point. He is spot on in many regards. But, Birkenhead commits a common error, where even in offering a robust critique of the lie that is the "popular" embrace of a neutered and "harmless" Confederacy--where millions of people were killed, tortured, raped, torn form family and kin, reduced to items in an inventory, or property to be taxed on a ledger--he uses the "universal I," a common sense judgement of who "we" actually are:
If America is a family, it’s a family that has tacitly agreed to never speak again — not with much honesty, anyway — about the terrible things that went on in its divided house. Slavery has been taught, it has been written about. There can’t be many subjects that rival it as an academic ink-guzzler. But the culture has not digested slavery in a meaningful way, hasn't absorbed it the way it has World War II or the Kennedy assassination. We don't feel the connections to it in our bones.
It’s hard enough these days to connect with what happened 15 minutes ago, let alone 15 decades, given the endless layers of “classic,” “heirloom,” “traditional” “collectible,” “old school” comfort we’re swaddled in. But isn’t it the least we could do? What is the willful forgetting of slavery if not the coverup of a crime, an abdication of responsibility to its victims and to ourselves?
Who is this "we" that do not feel the connections to slavery in our bones? Why must United States history, and the idea of shared (and manufactured) community, almost by definition exclude black Americans? I know that I feel slavery in my bones and spirit. Our struggle and triumph in the face of almost unimaginable White barbarism is a legacy to be honored. And when I think of the fact that my grandmother's grandmother was likely born a slave, the connection to "the peculiar institution" is pretty deep in my blood and soul.
In all, America wants to forget on its own terms, because to fully acknowledge the centuries of chattel slavery in this country, and almost a century of Jim and Jane Crow, may actually require an acknowledgement of debts due. As I have long suggested, it is not the financial or monetary compensation for harm done to black Americans both in the past, and to the present by Whites and the Racial State, that is necessarily the deal breaker. No, it is the acknowledgement of wrong doing, and the simple words "I am sorry, we were wrong," that are at the root of why reparations are a non-starter in the United States.
An apology doesn't "cost" a thing, but for Whiteness (and many White people), it seems to be prohibitively expensive.
Because we all know that the sins of the father (or mother) are never passed down to the son or the daughter. Ironically, the privileges of whiteness, materially, economically, psychically, and politically, can be accrued with interest (and with no accountability at all) for centuries without end.
That is one hell of a bargain.