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That is the final line of Eugene Robinson's powerful Washington Post column, THe American Story of Slavery.

I will offer blockquotes without hotlinks because you should read the entire column.

Robinson begins by noting

Hollywood has finally taken an unflinching look at slavery. It’s past time for the rest of the country to do the same.
   He goes on to write
We tell ourselves that we know all about slavery, that it’s ancient history. But we’ve never fully investigated its horrors, which means we’ve never come to terms with them, which means we’ve never been able to get beyond them. Where slavery is concerned, we are imprisoned by William Faulkner’s famous epigram: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
It is not just that slavery feeds into America's continuing problems with racism.

It is that one can argue that slavery itself is not dead in the United States.  After all, the 13th Amendment banning slavery does contain the exception "except for punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted" which too many Americans forget, about which I will offer a few more thoughts.

But it is also important that our understanding of our history is incomplete, if you will, whitewashed.

There are three paragraphs that are for me key to understanding how incomplete that understanding is.  The first two, again, without hotlinks, are these:

I called it the nation’s original sin because slave owners, including the Founding Fathers, knew very well that they were sinners. Owning slaves was a matter of economics — one could hardly be expected to run a plantation without them — and personal luxury.

James Madison called slavery “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man” — but did not free the slaves he owned. Thomas Jefferson believed slavery should be ended in the future — but continued to own slaves throughout his lifetime. Patrick Henry, who said “Give me liberty or give me death,” believed that slavery was “evil” — but would not free the men and women he owned because of “the general inconvenience of living without them.”

While some Americans might be aware of the contradictions of Jefferson, in part because of Sally Hemings, I doub many have ever considered the situations of Madison or of Henry.

I see several ways this connects with America today.  First is the willingness of too many to look the other way at the demonizing of "others" sometimes even manipulating the fears some have based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion , in order to avoid "the general inconvenience" of limiting their own wealth and power.

Also connected with this is our continuation of involuntary servitude through the phenomenom of private places of incarceration, where those sentenced to such places are not given the guarantees of the Bill of Rights not merely because they have been convicted but because they are not being held by the government, but by private corporations who are by contract guaranteed a steady flow of inmates from they profit not merely from the pay they receive for holding them, but from the profits of the labor they are required to do.  That some argue thatwe continue to have incredibly disparities by race in the rate of incarceration does not have anything to do with our history of slavery beggars the imagination.

We also need to understand that this never was, and is not today, merely a product of the Old Confederacy.  Robinson writes:

Many people think of slavery as only a Southern phenomenon, but some of the biggest slave traders in the country were based in Rhode Island. Commerce in cotton picked by slaves was so important to New York’s growth as a financial center that the mayor, Fernando Wood, wanted the city to secede during the Civil War in order to continue doing business with the Confederacy.
As one who lived through the Civil Rights era as an adolescent and later as a young adult, as horrible as were the images we saw on tv from the Southern states, it was just as horrifying to see the impacts of racism and segregation by culture and deliberate economic policy if not officially by law in the North -  we saw it in ghettoes, we saw it in admission to colleges, we saw it in places like Pennsylvania with state institutions of higher education for African Americans, we saw it in the casual use of racial slurs.  

We have not ever fully addressed the continuing legacy of slavery - and I would argue our continuing pattern of involuntary servitude and economic repression that perpetuate slavery and slavery-like conditions that deny some people hope and a future for themselves or their progeny.

You may choose to criticize the film.  You can feel free to argue with Robinson's interpretation of history, or of what I have written in this post.

You cannot if intellectually honest deny the continuing racism that is so much a part of the American ethos, to our great moral shame.

Which is why I agree with Robinson that after all Slavery’s story is America’s story.

It is a story we have never fully told.

Perhaps it is time we start?

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (20+ / 0-)

    "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it, because what the world needs is more people who have come alive." - Howard Thurman

    by teacherken on Fri Mar 07, 2014 at 03:40:25 AM PST

  •  I've even seen advocacy for involuntary... (0+ / 0-)

    ...servitude right here on Daily Kos recently, in a recent discussion on the Draft.

    I couldn't believe my eyes as I read it.

    •  I would make a distinction (8+ / 0-)

      as I do with the requirement for community service as a condition for high school graduation

      some limited period of service on behalf of the society as a whole is not involuntary servitude -  after all, we consider jury duty to be a civic obligation

      that said, I recognize I am in a minority here in supporting a requirement for universal nation service, even as I would broadly define it as far more than military service.  Police, fire, teaching in poverty areas, some kinds of social work, etc., would all be satisfactory for me.

      Sorry I cannot explain at this time in more detail - about to teach my first class.

      "Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it, because what the world needs is more people who have come alive." - Howard Thurman

      by teacherken on Fri Mar 07, 2014 at 04:05:22 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Totally agree on community service - (0+ / 0-)

        I think it should be required and very broadly defined.  Military an option, certainly, but predominately a combination of the CCC and Americorps with some of the WPA thrown in for good measure.  (The WPA did more than build roads, bridges, and courthouses - they originated the school lunch program, made mattresses as well as clothing for distribution centers for those in need, and of course had more kinds of arts and entertainment programs than you can shake a stick at - all of which were very valuable both by employing people to do them thus putting money into the economy by way of their living expenses and by educating and heartening a depressed people.)

  •  America loves slavery as long as they don't see it (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    liberalguy, salmo, AJayne, bumbi, Shockwave

    & it's called something else.
    That we had Jim Crow & many of the Rs are bringing it back.
    Tipped & rec'ed

    nosotros no somos estúpidos

    by a2nite on Fri Mar 07, 2014 at 05:11:19 AM PST

  •  America has never paid for slavery or segregation (8+ / 0-)

    We got away scot free with monuments  even for the Confederate generals and naming schools after Jefferson Davis. And we replaced it with segregation which may have been a worse and more egregious sin: at least slaves had value but once set free they became targets.
    America has never paid for these great wrongs. That's why the effects go on to this day, we're still in denial about it. Has America ever apologized for slavery and segregation? AFAIK, no. I know they apologized for the 1066 actions against the Nisei and gave reparations for that.
    No, America wants to look at this as just a major historical oops, not the society shaping wrong it was.

    Happy just to be alive

    by exlrrp on Fri Mar 07, 2014 at 05:29:07 AM PST

    •  figure 4 million slaves at emancipation with (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      claims at 1 million each in today's dollars, if there were a viable class action against the slave states, slavery having been state law. That's roughly $4 trillion in claims of heirs, a rough estimate of the justice gap in continuing poverty and underdevelopment, not counting claims of those subjected to Jim Crow, and other victims over almost 400 years. The same people capping the budget deficit are the ones' potentially liable.

      The recent breakthroughs in scholarship within the Du Bois paradigm are partly attributable to the campus rebellions of the 1960's that establshed Black History as a thriving field after a hundred years of suppression by racist historians.

      Slavery is a key to American history, not so much with the founders, but after the invention of the cotton gin. The founders expected slavery to die out as it did in the North. But with the imperialist expansion of the cotton industry, the South rejected abolition, placing stress on all the intrinsic fracture points, namely: opposing interpretations of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the corruption of money in politics in the ruling slaveocracy, the emergence  of judicial supremacy in Dred Scott, the undermining of the rule of law in  barbaric slave law, the emergence of imperialism. A larger definition of the civil war would show that the South had won by 1876, although losing their separatist government, reasserted control over the Union and still continues to impose segregation, secret government, militarization and poverty as the army of the neoliberal paradigm.

      The Black History movement assists MLK's call for a revolution in values. History helps to appreciate and build upon the  leadership of those previously forgotten and officially defamed, from JQA and Sumner to Huey P. Long and Huey P. Newton. Slavery puts the problem of conflict in US history plainly, as Sumner stated it as a descendant of the Boston revolution, as a war for civilization. His civil rights bill passed in 1875, but was struck down by the supramacist Court in 1883, not to be revived for 80 years. US history is a story of revolution and counter-revolution.

  •  The best read I've come across (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    salmo, AJayne, a2nite, Shockwave, Tronsix2

    on this topic is Complicity, by Anne Farrow et al. Many of the details in Robinson's article are fleshed out pretty thoroughly, and in a scholarly manner. It opened my eyes to the fact that nowhere in the country was unaffected by slavery and the associated racism, e.g. many free states were that way not because slavery was abhorrent, but because the citizens didn't want large populations of blacks within their borders; the industrial revolution in New England was powered by the cotton trade; New York City was also built thereon. Harriet Beecher Stowe apparently said that it was slavery like the North liked it - all of the benefits with none of the screams.

  •  "Man's inhumanity to Man" (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Shockwave, Tronsix2, samddobermann

    makes me sick.  I know enough about slavery already to give me nightmares.  What I don't know is what I can do about it.  I'm a white female in my 60s.  In a minor way, I've done marches and sit-ins - and reached out to "others" when my schools were first integrated back in the 1960s.  In the 1970s and 80s I worked in places where I was the only white person (sometimes the "others" were black, sometimes Hispanic, sometimes Asian) and at least I think I got along well with my co-workers.  That I do not now was not a deliberate choice based on racial factors, it's that this is where I managed to get a job that pays secretaries a living wage.

    I know it was bad - evil even - and still is.  Worse than with women in general who could only be sold once or children who were legally property until they reached their majority, whatever age that was in the state they lived in.  And right up there with the genocide attempted and partly successful done to Native Americans.  Thinking about this makes me sick, which of course isn't anything compared to what it did/does to the people who were on the receiving end.  Our Founders had a choice - legalize slavery, continue to hold slaves, or not.  I don't have that kind of clear-cut choice.  What can I do?  

    •  bfitzinAR: keep on doing what you (0+ / 0-)

      have been. You sound like a really wise person. Just keep talking. And working to elect better than you have now in AR.

      I'm asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about real change in Washington ... *I'm asking you to believe in yours.* Barack Obama

      by samddobermann on Sat Mar 08, 2014 at 03:59:17 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

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