How Close Are We?

“I see dead people.” The Sixth Sense (1999)

According to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown “we’re just two lifetimes removed from [the] ugly history of slavery.”  That acknowledgment seems to play an important role as Brown deals with the fallout surrounding the discovery that his ancestors were slaveowners.  What was once abstract becomes personal and immediate and the question of responsibility or guilt looms overhead.  National interest in slavery has increased over the last decade on the heels of academic scholarship which has been at work at least since the mid- to late-1960s.  In 1998 Edward Ball published Slaves in the Family which won a National Book Award and spawned a cottage industry of white Americans narrating their personal struggles to uncover and acknowledge family histories steeped in race and slavery.  Most of these books end in some kind of triumphant reunion and reconciliation with descendants of the slave families.  These books allow us to wade through the more disturbing aspects of race relations in America without giving up on a belief in a brighter future.  In recent weeks we learned of the connection between Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond and the recent PBS series African American Lives has uncovered a very rich past for prominent black Americans such as Oprah Winfrey and Chris Tucker.  Finally, the state of Virginia expressed regret about the “peculiar institution.”

What I find to be so interesting is that we tend to be moving closer to this aspect of our collective past rather than moving away.  Time is collapsing rather than expanding.  Here is how Brown conceptualizes things:

The way I look at it, 1853 isn’t so long ago. That’s just two lifetimes. Let’s take that 5-year-old slave girl Sarah. It’s possible that she lived to be 82 years old. In her later years, she might have met and had some impact on some other little 5-year-old girl, who is now 82 herself. That brings you right up to today.  That 82-year-old could be somebody whose life has intersected with mine — or with my children’s — without my knowing it.  Maybe that’s too esoteric for your taste, but it seems pretty straightforward to me.

I use these kinds of examples all the time in the classroom and in the case of slavery, along with its companion Jim Crow, they are essential.  As a nation it would be an understatement to suggest that we are mildly uncomfortable when it comes to talking about the history of race and slavery.  We simply do not know how to do it without the discussion sliding into a childish slugfest of blame and personal guilt and white vs. black.  For those of us who study how Americans have chosen to remember the Civil War and related topics the discussion of slavery and race hits like a ton of bricks because as a nation we have invested so much in ignoring the issues.  Our responses are telling: “The Civil War ended so long ago” or “I had no personal involvement so what business is it of mine?”  Brown’s analysis suggests that it’s not so long ago and that we would do well to consider his little thought experiment.

The people in my family owned other people. Black people. They passed on these black people in their wills as inheritance. They recorded this ownership in official records the same as if the black people were parcels of land…. Do I think I owe anybody financial reparations? No.  Do I feel some personal sense of obligation that I didn’t feel a week ago?  Yes, I think so. I’m not sure what form it should take, but at the very least, I think I have an even greater responsibility to be sensitive to racial issues.  Some people want to dismiss this as “white liberal guilt”….  I’m not telling anybody they should feel guilty.  I don’t personally feel guilty. But I’m not particularly comfortable with this new knowledge, either. [my emphasis]

I highlighted those two particular passages because they reflect a mature thinker and a profound sense of uneasiness which I personally value when writing and thinking about the past.   Brown is correct in noting that it’s not about guilt or personal responsibility for the actions and decisions of others.  The form it takes may be differ depending on the questions being asked or the background of the individual engaged in historical thinking.  The history of slavery/race should make us uncomfortable if we acknowledge the ways in which we are connected to it and shaped by it.  As Brown learned we may be interacting with it on a daily basis.

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