Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Never forget.

My local news is asking its viewers whether or not the state of New Jersey should formally apologize for slavery. Most of the viewers who are responding are saying that New Jersey should not apologize. They believe that the effects of slavery are long gone, and that at some point, people should have stopped dwelling on it. Others believe that such an apology would do little for anyone living today. The news station itself is also asking the viewers: if an apology was extended, who would apologize, and who should receive the apology?

My theory is that the viewers who believe that it is too late to even think about slavery are not as concerned about the fair placement of blame as they are annoyed by the possibility that black Americans will use such an apology to continue to talk about past wrongs, using slavery as an excuse for the problems in the current state of Black America. I personally think that many people are simply tired of thinking about slavery. White folks are tired of being blamed for something that happened before anyone who is currently living was born.

My thing is, White folks don't seem to be tired of reaping the benefits of African servitude, so why should they get to be tired of hearing about the institution that made these benefits possible?

If an apology were extended, it should be extended by the government of New Jersey, not by individual white people. It should be extended to the descendants of people who were enslaved in the state of New Jersey while the government continued to permit the ownership of human beings as property, and continued to permit forced free labor which contributed to the economy and infrastructure which continue to benefit all New Jerseyans today. The point would be to acknowledge that a wrong was done, not to provide anyone with blame for something that their ancestors may not have even done, or to provide others with the right to condemn anyone else.

To what end should this be done? How would this benefit anyone, really? It is a matter of principle. It is about a government accepting responsibility for allowing human rights violations to occur under its watch. This is rather simple, but tremendously meaningful.

This is why - and this is something that some of the white detractors may not have an appreciation for: the more acquainted I am becoming with the lives of my ancestors, the more meaningful my ancestors' lives become to my own life. White people have the opportunity to go to places like Ellis Island, and ancestry websites, to find out what's in their family tree. The fortunate can go back centuries, through American history, across borders, across the Atlantic and even home to an "old country." People do this because of curiosity and because of ancestral and ethnic pride. In search of the same, many black Americans like myself, if they're fortunate, can go back only so far before they hit roadblocks in the nineteenth century - that dark period in American history where Negroes were property and listed not with the citizens, but with the chattel in the Census. Alex Haley's experience was a singularly lucky one. I don't expect to hear the origin of my bloodline from a griot in my own "old country." Frankly, I don't expect to find out which "old country" is my own.

Consequently, so far as my family may ever know, "my own" is Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina. So far as we may ever know, this is the only history - the only legacy available to our family tree. Slavery. The direct predecessor of Jim Crow, illiteracy, and back-breaking work in a racially inequitable society full of redlining, intimidation, and animosity. Additionally, I attribute the fact that it took over a century to produce college graduates in my family to slavery and its aftermath. If I were personally offered an apology from the governments of Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and North Carolina, that would be extremely meaningful for me, even if it did all happen before my birth. Because contrary to detractors' beliefs, it matters. It couldn't free my enslaved ancestors before their deaths, it couldn't keep Jim Crow from retarding their children's educational and financial progress, but it still matters to me, right now, in 21st century America. Along with equal opportunity policies, acknowledgments like these are bricks in the road to recovery for race relations in this country.

We cannot forget the past. We cannot shrug off its present meaning. It's not because we want to guilt anyone, but it's because of honor for our ancestors that the history of slavery will remain alive. We cannot remember the fighting against slavery to taxes by teaching about and commemorating the Boston Tea Party, but on the other hand, forget about the Virginia Iron Manacles because it makes some whites uncomfortable.

The fact that the slaves and slaveholders are dead doesn't make the apology moot - it just makes it overdue. Today's governments were in existence at the time of slavery, and they are a suitable apologist. If New Jersey decided to extend an apology, I would approve of the gesture.