Something Worth Celebrating

This week England acknowledged 200 years without the slave trade.  The church in England is considering some kind of reparations for the slave trade and a church in East Lancashire held a special service marking this important moment:

Church and civic leaders marked abolition at an Ecumenical Evensong and heard a sermon from Archbishop Gomez.  He said: "I am pleased to give thanks for the abolition of slavery 200 years ago. The trade of slaves deprived between five and 20 million of their dignity, their freedom and ultimately their lives, something which is beyond imagination for us."

I can read over 250 online articles on this subject in contrast with next to no coverage when it comes to our own history of abolitionism.  Why is it that in a nation that prides itself on freedom and equality we do not focus more attention on certain dates?  There is rarely any acknowledgment of the Emancipation Proclamation, Thirteenth Amendment or other Reconstruction Amendments.  Instead we engage in debates as to whether Lincoln intended to free the slaves or whether Reconstruction was a violation of states’ rights.   Perhaps we are ashamed of our history given that Emancipation and the end of slavery eventually led to Jim Crow.  To look at our history is to be reminded that freedom and civil rights do not always move inextricably in a more expansive or progressive manner, but sometimes takes a turn in the opposite direction. 

We do not necessarily have feel shame when looking at our national past as it is filled with brave men and women who worked tirelessly to bring about social and political change.  Sometimes the federal government worked to undermine that process, but at other times it did act admirably.  We can acknowledge those moments without becoming too self-congratulatory and in a way that provides perspective on how far or how little we’ve traveled since.

2 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Mar 27, 2007 @ 7:59

    Your point is essentially Blight’s argument in _Race and Reunion_. I would point out that Northerners held similar racial assumptions regarding blacks. We tend to forget that the Republican Party was interested more in free labor than racial equality.

  • chris Mar 26, 2007 @ 23:57

    Good remarks. I wonder with similar thoughts about the legacy of abolition myself. Our collective amnesia appears to have much to do with the idea that we would rather remember the mutual reconciliation after the Civil War than the successful efforts of abolitionists. Aka…how could we (Americans) re-welcome “brothers” who would not rescind their racial values while we celebrated their error? My own research and reading (as immature as it is) seems to be showing that the North and South expressed popular reconciliation only after the South’s racial perceptions of emancipated blacks were nationalized. So, put another way, perhaps we chose not to remember the history of abolitionists because our collective remembrance hinges much more upon a re-conciled union rather than the moral stakes upon which the war was fought. I am being overly reductionist here (my apologies). I both enjoy and respect your train of thought. I have always been fascinated myself with which figures tend to occupy our collective imagination about “our” past.

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