What is “it”? — Why America Needs a Slavery Museum

If it’s a video over a minute long, I typically don’t watch it. I watched this whole video. You should too.

It’s an important piece of our cultural puzzle to be reminded why there are racial tensions in our nation, in our communities, in our families; to be reminded that even after generations gone by, the echoes of slavery infect our culture. The ones who say this isn’t so are often the very ones who reverence the Confederacy, who declare “heritage, not hatred”. I find it to be so ironic that it’s painful, that people at once bear the grudge for their ancestors while denying that same right to African Americans who seek to do the same. I don’t think it’s even an intentional thing; I think it’s simply uncomfortable, and we avoid discomfort.

But it’s time for a new conversation.

It’s time to cast off our squirmishness about race and the issues surrounding it and snuggle into the uncomfortable space that we inhabit together — that America has a problem rooted in the very foundation of our culture that continues to prevent us being the Land of the Free for a pretty large segment of our population. This cultural blind-spot allows many to not only excuse the fact that we’re free but unequal, but romanticize the past as our “Golden Age”.

Which “Golden Age” is this, precisely?

The Golden Age of our Founders, during which black folks were slaves?

The Golden Age of industrialization, during which Irish, Italian, and other immigrants were added to the queue of racial injustice previously inhabited by African Americans, and women still couldn’t vote?

The Golden Age of the 1950’s, which I hear many of the older generation declare to be the high point of American Christianity? You mean the one during which church leaders supported segregation, Jim Crow laws, and women were in the workplace but really only had a very few careers to choose from?

The Golden Modern Age maybe, but still we saw desegregation and resegregation; pay inequality for women; and so on.

What about now? Could we be in a Golden Age now? I could choose from a great many things, but I’ll just say that Donald Trump is a serious contender for President in the primaries. I’m leaning toward “no”again.

It’s true, we don’t have to even disturb the dust of the ground to find evidence that our culture has a deep seeping woundedness when it comes to dealing with race or gender justice issues. Even so, many people still ask the question, “but why do people still talk about slavery? I’ve never owned any slaves; my parents and grandparents didn’t own them. How does this even still matter?”.

“The fact of going into the archives and digging all those names, and taking them back to life, anybody who comes here will know that Abdu from Senegal was a slave here. He died in 1836. You don’t just teach [about] slavery, these people have backgrounds. They came from Africa. But also you have to know that these people came maybe naked or half-naked, but they didn’t need a suitcase to put their culture inside.”, were the words of Ibrahim Seck, the Director of Research at the Whitney Plantation near Wallace, LA.

It matters because these people matter. As Whitney Plantation Museum founder John Cummings said, “Well, you have to remember that we live under the tremendous weight of slavery now. And this isn’t Black History we’re talking about, this is American history. It’s my history, it’s your history. People have been lynched, [and been] slaves. You went into the Army and you weren’t respected. You had to sit in the back of a bus. You need federal legislation to get you into a school to get an education. All of these things.

“So when you see Robert E. Lee on a column eighty feet tall, the man who wanted to retain slavery, it offends you. You got two sides, and blacks are screaming prejudice at the white side, and the white side is looking at them and saying, ‘Why don’t they get over it? Why can’t they get over it?’; and the blacks don’t understand that the whites don’t know what ‘it’ is. What the ‘i-t’ is. We’re trying somehow to define the ‘it’; and unless you know what the ‘it’ is, don’t ask the question: ‘Why can’t they get over it?’. ”

It’s January 2016, and in some ways I think “it” is more obscured than it’s ever been during my lifetime as I see the resurgence of open, affirmed racism, jingoism, and sexism enshrined and applauded in the Trump campaign.

“Make America Great Again”.

Just which America was great for you?

Was that America great for your neighbor?

I pray that I’ll live to see America’s true Golden Age — the one that’s good for everyone.

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