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Living With Slavery - It's Time We Brought It Home
Published on Sunday, February 27, 2000 in the Seattle Times
Living With Slavery:
It's Time We Brought It Home
by Paul de Barros

In Germany, where the Nazis butchered 6 million Jews, you can visit Buchenwald, and hear the resounding echo of a whole country declaring, "Never again."

In South Africa, after the wretched system of apartheid was brought to an end, an entire nation aired its grief - and its tales of horror - in the Days of Reconciliation.

But in America, where millions of Africans and their descendants were forced into servitude between 1619 and 1865, where can you go to ponder - or, in the language of contemporary psychology, to "process" - this dark period of our history.

The answer, of course, is nowhere. There is no museum in America that tells the appalling story of how people were captured in Africa, brought in chains to the New World, and forced to work on plantations until they died. There is no memorial to their suffering, saying frankly and in full view, that this was a terrible thing to have done. There have been no reparations for slavery (though there were promises, after the Civil War). And, astonishingly, there has never even been an apology from the American government to its African-American citizens.


The Mexican poet and thinker Octavio Paz once wrote that Americans, though we are often excoriated for hedonistic consumption, tend to live in the future, not the present or past. With our focus on success, on optimism, and our sense that we can overcome all obstacles, we are always making plans for how the world will be - one week from now, one year from now, one century from now - rather than how it is, or how it was. We tend not to like history. It might remind us of the possibility of failure, and of imperfection.

Looking to the future has stood us in good stead, in many ways. It has made us good inventors and entrepreneurs, and has helped to create the most socially mobile society in history. But living in the future - and ignoring the past - has its down side.

As psychology teaches us, repressed memories don't really go away. They just bubble up in different forms, often monstrous ones. A black athlete is accused of murdering his white wife, and the country splits down the racial divide - not on the evidence - but on deeply held, subliminal and archetypal memories, driven by guilt, fear and rage about what the underlying meaning of such a murder might be. A white teacher punishes a black child by commanding her to lick the blackboard clean. We suspect there might be more than classroom discipline behind the deed.

A couple of years ago, while I was watching the Stephen Spielberg film, "Amistad," as the first, violent scenes came on, of Africans being loaded onto the slave ships, an African-American girl - probably 8 or 9 years old - complained to her father, "Why do we have to see this, Daddy?" Her father answered quietly. "Just watch. You need to know these things."

Most Americans - both black and white - are like that little girl.

"Don't remind me of slavery days," insist forward-looking African Americans. "I have a dream."

"Hey, that happened 150 years ago," complain some whites. "Can't they just let that go?"

We don't forget these things and move on, we just pretend to.

Americans - both black and white - need a place where they can begin to heal. And nothing heals a wound like fresh air.

This could start with something as basic as a simple memorial, like the ones we've built for the dead who've fallen in war, a formal recognition on the part of white people that black people have suffered in this country and that it was wrong.

Who knows? Perhaps even an apology might follow, though no doubt the specter of reparations looms so large on politicians' minds that they might never be able to bring themselves to such an obvious gesture. But, even better, a museum commemorating the victims of slavery might be the real ground zero where Americans could begin to talk - and think and feel - about something they continually avoid.

Such an institution could detail the daily lives of slaves, which people know very little about, save through the distorted lens of popular culture or family mythology.

It could highlight the great slave narratives, by men such as Frederick Douglass, which helped end the trade, and tell the brave story of the abolitionists who kept the issue before the voting public. It could show how slavery affected every major political decision in our country's first 80 years of existence, and caused one of our greatest tragedies, the Civil War.

But better, on a more mundane level, it would bring to light the stubborn reality of black peoples' lives in early American history.

There are encouraging signs that America might be ready to face such realities, instead of constantly rationalizing, dismissing or discounting them.

Of course, this takes a lot of courage - on both sides.

For all of us to reach deep in our hearts and find a common heritage - instead of a divided one - would mean giving up something to which many of us have grown almost attached. For psychologists also teach us that we become attached to our pain, and that it's sometimes more comforting to justify the darkness of our vision with the claim that, really, it has always been night.

The composer and trumpet player Wynton Marsalis recently confronted the issue of slavery in his Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio, "Blood on the Fields," in which an African slave owner who suddenly has become a slave himself discovers that compassion for another human being is what brings light to life's horizon, not just anger, or pointing the finger at injustice. Perhaps Marsalis' work is a harbinger that Americans finally are ready to talk about slavery.

We should at least give it a try, by creating for ourselves a place where that conversation could begin to take place.

Paul de Barros is the jazz critic for the Seattle Times. He is a Seattle historian and author of "Jackson Street After Hours: The roots of jazz in Seattle."


Copyright 2000 The Seattle Times Company

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