Slavery and Reconciliation in Virginia

Most of you are no doubt aware of the recent debate here in Virginia over a proposal by the state legislature to issue some kind of apology for slavery.  The amended resolution calls for the legislature to “hereby acknowledge withcontrition the involuntary servitude and call for reconciliation among all Virginians.”  This simple acknowledgment raised the ire of Delegate Frank Hargrove (R-Hanover) who attacked the idea by suggesting that blacks “get over” slavery and went on in an attempt to draw an analogy by suggesting that perhaps the Jews should apologize for killing Christ.

To be honest I don’t know where I stand on this issue; it’s not clear to me what would be accomplished by issuing such a statement.  However, it is not uncommon for individuals, organizations or public institutions to acknowledge mistakes in order to foster reconciliation.  In the 1980’s the federal government apologized to Japanese Americans for their forced internment in 1942 following the attack at Pearl Harbor.  What I find interesting is the way individuals are responding to this proposal.  Here are a few examples:

King Salim Khalfani, head of the NAACP  in Virginia, commented, “You’re damned right they owe us an apology.  They need to repair the damage.”

Frank Earnest of the Virginia Chapter of Sons of Confederate Veterans had this to say: “Not every black person in this country is a descendant of slaves. Not every
white person in this country is a descendant of people who owned slaves.”

A comment from another blog: “Should Southerners ‘apologize’ for slavery? Only if everyone else including the
Africans who sold black slaves to whites, the New England mariners who ran the
‘Triangle Trade’ (molasses to rum to slaves), the governments – including that
of the United States – which permitted the trade and everyone else who was
complicit in the matter ALSO apologize. But since no one who actually WAS
involved in slavery (at least the particular type of slavery under discussion)
still lives, it is pointless to demand that the descendents of only ONE aspect
of the institution ‘apologize’ for all of those involved in the entire system.”

An apology for slavery would also help, but “the government’s not gonna do it,”
said black city resident John Alexander as he paused near a statue of
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. “The average white person feels they don’t owe
us nothing.”

While the four passages are evenly distributed between two white and two black individuals, they all have something in common and that is that they reduce this question of an apology down to the level of race.  The third passage does just this before making the strange assumption that unless everyone apologize no one need apologize.  The question on the table is not whether whites should apologize to blacks or whether blacks deserve an apology from whites.  The issue is whether in 2007 the state of Virginia should acknowledge its role in the history of slavery as it existed within its borders.  The resolution – as I understand it – does not ask anyone to take responsibility for slavery and it does not ask that any one individual or group feel guilty for what happened in the past.  It is a resolution, which if approved, would be issued by a bi-racial institution in acknowledgment of a past that it played an important role in.  It was the colonial government in Williamsburg that passed laws between 1680-1720 that grounded the institution of slavery into its economic and social structure; later it was the state government in Richmond which debated and almost abolished its “peculiar institution” in the 1830’s and later during the first few years of the twentieth-century passed its first Jim Crow laws – an extension of slavery.

There is nothing wrong with having a debate about this issue, but let’s get over this childish insecurity that masks some important questions that could be addressed.

2 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Feb 2, 2007 @ 8:42

    I definitely don’t want to pull hairs here, but it seems to me that institutions can apologize without it necessarily reducing to personal guilt. Perhaps you could say that an expression of guilt could imply some kind of restitution as opposed to regret which suggests a straight-forward acknowledgment about a previous decision, etc.

  • elektratig Feb 1, 2007 @ 21:40

    It seems to me there’s a significant difference between an apology and an expression of regret. An apology suggests personal guilt; an expression of regret does not.

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