Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Story We Tell About Our Past - Slavery In America

I am not allowed to read politics at various points in the year because I get so steamed under the collar that I become slightly depressed.  Sure, there are some wonderful things happening, but lots of times I stand in absolute shock and fury at what is passing for governance.

Sometimes, however, even when I stay away from politics, I run across things that just blow my mind.

Take this morning.  I was looking at reviews of movies and reading some opinion pieces when I came across this piece in the Washington Post.  It was written by a fellow who is an older gentleman.  He was talking about the movie, 12 Days a Slave.  He said he had no idea that slavery in America was such a bad thing.  He'd always been taught that, yes, it was evil, and yes, it was bad, but most slaves rather enjoyed being taken care of and white folks were rather benign and gentle with their charges.

I read the article in shock.  How is it possible to go through this world, live in this country, and go through elementary or high school and not know the plight of African Americans?  I really thought everyone knew, but people just didn't want to talk about it.

That's when I thought about all of the things I know to be true about the stories we tell ourselves.  We live in a country where our stories have a cascading effect on how we view things.

Example:  We live in a country blessed by God.  We live in a free country.  We live in a prosperous country.

If you take these statements and don't dissect them, but make them the basis of your story of this country, there are some things that will not make sense in your story.

For example, right now, there is a huge push to disenfranchise the poor.  Well, we live in a free country that is prosperous.  If you are poor, clearly it is your fault.  Get out there and stop being so poor and you will be good Americans.  End of story.

We live in a country blessed by God.  The reason why we are having problems in this country is not because our economic policies are out of whack, it is because God is mad our social policies are out of whack, so ban all things that have to do with women's health, and stop couples of the same gender.  Then, God will bless us and we will be fine.  End of story.

We live in a free country.  Big business should be able to do whatever it likes, free enterprise should not be regulated, gun ownership should not be regulated, energy companies should not be regulated.  If we got rid of all of these onerous regulations, everything would work better because things would be free to work.  End of story.

America is land of the brave home of the free.  We are blessed by god and we are prosperous.  Clearly slavery must have been a kind of relationship that was not nearly as bad as some of those black people claim.  I've heard accounts that black folks rather liked slavery and that it made their lives easier.  Most slave owners couldn't have been that bad, I mean, they were Americans, after all, and Americans are the best people in the world.  End of story.

One of the things that becomes true when we simplify our stories for the sake of our simple plot lines, is that we lose track of why we actually think the things we think.  For instance, where on earth did the stories of happy slaves originate?  I know this is going to be hard to believe, but lots white people wrote those stories after the Civil War.

Why would such information become part of our country?  Well, after the Civil War, there was some need to put the country back together.  How could we build anew if part of our country felt as if it had been defeated?  How could we go back to being one nation if we had just gone through bloody years with neighbors killing neighbors and brother killing brother?  Well, the answer was simple at the time.

The southern states got to define the Civil War.

The first attempts at this were to claim that slavery wasn't such a terrible thing and that now that blacks were free, they weren't up to the task mentally.  They were still a lesser race, despite having freedom they didn't know what to do with.

This attempt to make slavery look benign didn't go well at the time.  Some white folks were content that this was so, but there were too many black people who'd just gotten out of slavery, and they knew better.  Not only that, they were starting to get their own voice.  The stories they told completely undermined the idea that their lives had been sweet and jolly.  Nobody much bought the idea of happy slaves right after the Civil War, but here, in 2013, there are people who choose to believe this because it is easier than facing the horror of what actually happened.

The next, and ultimately successful push was to define the Civil War as a war of State's Rights.  Slavery, according to this new view, was not even a part of this.  Slavery just happened to be going on at the time, but the secession had nothing to do with it.  It was just about states asserting their right not to bow to a tyrannical government.  This campaign was successful, and to this day, in the south, you still get  people teaching this much more bland, less horrific version of the main reason for the civil war.

If you read the Constitution of the Confederate States, what you will notice is that it is almost word for word an exact copy of the Constitution of the United States of America.  They do not quibble with anything in the North except for when it comes to slaves.  The only things they changed of any note, were articles about the right to forever keep all folks of African ancestry enslaved.  They make a point of not only saying slaves can't ever be free under any circumstances, but that there is no place a slave could go and be free.  Once human property, always human property.  So, it seems the only tyrannical thing the North was doing was allowing for slaves to be free.

When I come across articles like the one from the Post where someone is expressing shock that African Americans suffered generational systemic abuse at the hands of slaveholders, I am always a bit outraged that this should be so.

"Have we learned nothing from history?"  I demand of the universe.

The answer, of course, is not really.  We only learn from the stories we hear and the stories we believe. That's why we have holocaust deniers.  That's why people refuse to believe poverty and hunger are as big a problem in our country as they are.  That's why people don't want to fund public education.  That's why people think we are a Christian Nation.  That's why people don't understand our current state of race relations in this country.

The history we often teach and hold dear has nothing to do with what happened.  Because we don't know what happened, we don't understand the world we see around us.  Because we don't understand the world we see around us, we make up reasons for what we see that have nothing to do with the basis of the problem.  We attempt to solve the problems based on our impressions of what we think is happening instead of what actually happened.  We fail  Then, we blame the failure on something that has nothing to do with the problem at hand.

If only we actually knew our own stories.  If only we were willing to face our own truths, dark as they may be.  If only the past didn't inform the future.

The cultures at breaking point know the truth of all of this.  If we lose our stories, we lose our way.  It is past time for us to begin to tell the truth about what happened here; even if it makes a whole section of our country look bad.  Until we face our truths, nothing can get better.

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