Never Too Late to Learn: Racism and Slavery in America
By Jan Wilberg on August 11, 2014
It occurs to me that the way to change people's attitudes is to tell them the truth.
If people are never exposed to the truth, we can't blame them for not 'getting it' when we try to explain things like sexism and racism.
Why I remember this I can't tell you. Maybe it's convenient and fits my story line, I'm not sure. But I do truly remember sitting in American History class in high school in 1965, the fat textbook open in front of me, reading the paragraph about slavery in America that started the chapter on the Civil War and at the end of the chapter, reading the Emancipation Proclamation. That's it. Slavery in American started and ended in a single chapter in my history book. There were study questions at the end of the chapter, our homework due at the end of the week. Little essay questions. We didn't discuss it. The concept of slavery seemed horrible to me but only in the most amorphous, abstract way. I would hate being a slave, my 17-year old self thought.
The oppression of the day was considerably more tangible and real to me than the slavery of the previous century. Slavery was old. It was history. It was over. What was happening while I was in high school was visible, right now, and pressing. The sit-in at the Woolworth lunch counter, the march to Selma, busloads of people leaving Detroit to go south to register voters, the Birmingham bombing, the murders of Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner. Everything I knew and felt about civil rights and about Black people came from what I watched on TV on the nightly news. I didn't meet a Black person until I was 19 years old.
That meeting is a whole story in itself, better left to another time. Suffice to say that the meeting and the relationship that ensued were radicalizing, putting the events of the day center stage. Everything having to do with race became acute and pre-eminent, a central feature in my academic and work life. For many years, I believed that I understood racism, personal, institutional, systemic. And while I didn't applaud myself for this understanding, I did appreciate it as a gift of experience and exposure. I wasn't your everyday White person. I was enlightened, educated, sensitized.
But I still didn't 'get it' because I was never told the truth. The truth about racism isn't in the civil rights struggle or people's enduring prejudice against people not like them. It's not about equal opportunity or fair housing, admission quotas or culturally-intelligent services. It's about slavery.
I am 66 years old and I am kicking myself because I let the single chapter in my American History book be it for me in terms of my education about slavery. Basically the lesson as slavery happened. It's over. Time to move on. Instead of understanding the true past, I drew all of my understanding about racism from what was happening right at the moment, never really grasping that what was happening now had its roots in the horrors of 250 years of slavery. I'm not the only person in this state of ignorance and it's not just people in my generation. Like the history books forgot the myriad accomplishments of women, they omitted deep discussion of slavery. First person accounts around for a century were left unused by educators; true stories that would have made slavery real stayed on shelves somewhere but not in my home town library.
There are many first person slave narratives. 12 Years a Slave is the most famous at the moment; it's remarkable for its story and for the telling. Probably nothing will put a person in the world of slavery as compellingly as the scene in which Solomon Northup is forced to flog his friend Patsey. Reading this narrative in his own words was the beginning of my re-understanding of racism. What if Solomon Northup's book was required reading for every young person in America? That might be a start.
I've read many slave narratives before and after 12 Years a Slave. Recently I read Far More Terrible for Women, which is a compilation of interviews done in the 30's as part of the WPA, and am now reading Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. I am wondering why I never read these books before now, wondering why my high school thought the one chapter was enough, wondering why 250 years of slavery became an amputated leg buried in a distant grave, not worth examination or reflection.
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