Post-Independence Day Reflections on the Lingering Legacy of US Slavery
On one hand, I guess I understand the impulse of this rather astonishing effort by Tea Party activists...
A little more than a year after the conservative-led state board of education in Texas approved massive changes to its school textbooks to put slavery in a more positive light, a group of Tea Party activists in Tennessee has renewed its push to whitewash school textbooks. The group is seeking to remove references to slavery and mentions of the country's founders being slave owners.
According to reports, Hal Rounds, the Fayette County attorney and spokesman for the group, said during a recent news conference that there has been "an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another."
"The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn't existed, to everybody -- not all equally instantly -- and it was their progress that we need to look at," Rounds said, according to The Commercial Appeal.
If it were not for the assertion that the criticism was "made-up," I could almost buy the argument that it's time for us to focus more on the progress our founders enabled to eventually take place. After all, we can't linger in the past forever if we're sincere about perfecting our union.
But we dare not forget the truth of our past, lest we lose our true selves entirely in the process.
It's not without its critics, of course, but I for one was convinced by Toni Morrison's argument in Playing in the Dark that the racism that permitted slavery played a central role in defining our national character (at least as recorded in American literature). The so-called national bravery we read so much about, that enabled us to boldly pioneer new frontiers, for example, came in part through a projection of our fear of real freedom onto slaves. From The New York Times review:
The black "shadow" has, paradoxically, allowed white culture to face its fear of freedom, Ms. Morrison continues. Though Pilgrim, colonist, immigrant and refugee embraced America for its promise of freedom, they were nevertheless terrified at the prospect of becoming failures and outcasts, engulfed by a boundless, untamable nature. It was not surprising, then, that writers explored American identity in the most anxiety-ridden genre of literature -- the romance. There they could fill in the romance's "power of blackness," as Melville called it, with the figure of the slave, whose lack of freedom and whose blackness confirmed his contrast to the master. Africanism, the culture's construction of black slavery, stood, therefore, not only for the "not-free" but also for the "not-me."
But more concretely than metaphors, wanting to maintain the economic advantage of slavery loomed very large among the founders' practical rationales for breaking away from England. In fact, a little-known retort to the Declaration of Independence by John Lind, a British pamphleteer, rubs our nose in this less-than-flattering motivation:
[T]itled "Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress", [the retort was] written in the same snarky tone as an attack ad.
But like most attack ads, it also contained a few facts that the rebels didn't want to face. You remember the part where the Declaration says King George (quote) "has incited domestic insurrections among us..."?
John Lind points out that what the rebels were really upset about was that the King had "offered freedom to the slaves."
(QUOTE) "Is it for them to say that it is tyranny to bid a slave be free?"
Lind goes on to mock the founders for writing noble words stating, "all men are created equal" and asserting "Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" and then in the same document, complaining about the King for encouraging the slaves to rise up.
"Is it for them to complain of the offer of freedom held out to these wretched beings? of the offer of reinstating that equality, which, in this very paper, is declared to be the gift of God to all?"
Again, I understand the desire to move on reflected by the Tea Party activists' attempts to whitewash our history, but even there, one underlying implication is that as a nation that we're not strong enough to handle the truth. As an American, I reject that implication.
Yes, our history is complicated. Yes, in parts it's hideous and unforgivable. But it's all part of what made us who we are. And we can't be truly proud of who we are unless we're honest about the times we failed and then made amends.
There's a man of African descent living in the White House. We are unquestionably perfecting the union. As a Progressive, I believe we can stand to do so more quickly. As an American, though, I accept that as much work as there is still to do, we can only celebrate who we are meaningfully if we acknowledge it honestly.