Monday, January 29, 2007

Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa

It doesn't happen all that much, but once in a while the American body politic engages in a public execution...

In this session of the Virginia General Assembly, Delegate A. Donald McEachin of Henrico county put forth a resolution calling for the Commonwealth of Virginia to publicly apologize for slavery. McEachin, whose great-grandfather was a slave, said that this was part of "a healing process" that "needs to occur." He went on to say that "No one is asking any individual to apologize...but, Virginia is alive and well, and Virginia was built on the backs of slaves, and Virginia’s economy boomed because of slavery, and it is Virginia that ought to apologize."

On the surface, this is the sort of meaningless resolution that looks good to voters, even though it doesn't accomplish much. However, as Delegate Frank D. Hargrove of Glen Allen noted, "I think this is a harmful idea just to keep recycling this thing which we all know and all despise and have no respect for." Delegate Hargrove went on to state that "Slavery was a horrible institution. On the other hand, not a soul in this legislature had anything to do with slavery." He also noted that demanding a statewide apology for slavery was comparable to demanding an apology from France for its treatment of Huguenots or asking the Jewish people to apologize for killing Christ. Finally, he completed his perfect storm of controversy by stating that slavery had been abolished for over 140 years and that "I personally think that our black citizens should get over golly, we’re living in 2007."

It was mere nanoseconds before legislators and political activists began pillorying Hargrove in an orgy of self-righteous posturing. On the gentler end of the spectrum, there was Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr. of Fairfax County, whose only issue was with the impolitic nature of Hargrove's statements: "People ought to have learned a lesson from this past year's senatorial campaign in Virginia...we live in a different age as far as sensitivity goes...Particularly in a legislative body, where we operate in a goldfish bowl, we ought to be very careful about what we say in public."

On the more strident end, Delegate Dwight Clinton Jones of Richmond, chairman of the black caucus, argued that Hargrove's statement that black citizens need to "get over" slavery likened the institution to "a birthday party that somebody had last Saturday night." Jones went on to state that "I want to apologize to the mothers and fathers of my ancestors who were transported to this nation against their will in order that this nation might be built upon their backs. I want to apologize to the mothers and fathers of the civil rights generation who were hosed and bitten by dogs, and their children killed in churches as they burned, because of hatred that was put upon them. I want to apologize to them."

Piling on ridiculousness, Delegate David Englin of Alexandria held up a photo of his 7-year-old son, stating that, because of Hargrove's comment about Christ-killers, the boy was now "that much more likely to be verbally attacked or physically attacked." Hargrove responded "I didn't know you were Jewish...and I really don't care...I think your skin was a little too thin about this."

Of course, no one bothered to note that Hargrove commented about Jews killing Christ merely as a means of pointing out the ridiculousness of such a claim. For that matter, few pundits noted that Hargrove is the descendant of French Huguenots who fled religious persecution, which means that he was offering his own genetic ill-will on the sacrificial pyre of ridiculous grudges.

This furor was an odd experience for me, as I found myself in complete agreement with Hargrove. While his decision to make these statements on Martin Luther King Day was idiotic, he raised some very solid points that the Virginia House of Delegates, not to mention the rest of the country, should keep in mind:

1. Slavery has been abolished for over 140 years
Slavery has left a scar on this country, not to mention this state, but it's worth noting that it is, indeed, over. Yes, black people came to this country unwillingly. Yes, they were brutally mistreated when they arrived. However, our intense focus on the institution of slavery has obscured an important point: African-Americans are, fundamentally, Americans. After the Emancipation Proclamation, their ancestors chose to stay in this country. They helped build it, and worked very hard to carve out a place for themselves within its structures. Ignoring this choice, and the sacrifices that it engendered, is an insult to their memory. It seems to me that apologizing to African-Americans for the existence of an institution that they never experienced is, at the end of the day, the same as telling them that they haven't made any progress over the last century and a half. Frankly, this is the greatest insult at all.

2. With regard to slavery, people should "let it go."
I was discussing Cold Mountain with a friend of mine. She said that she disliked the movie because it was about the civil war but never mentioned slavery. I noted that Malcolm X was about the 1950's and 1960's, yet never mentioned JFK. She failed to see the connection.

If we make slavery the definitive event of Black America, then an entire segment of this country will be permanently enslaved. Personally, I nominate the Civil Rights movement as that definitive event. In it, African American leaders demonstrated to the U.S., and the world, the greatest intellectual and spiritual qualities to which humans can aspire. They provided an inspiring example, not just to blacks, but to every race. In short, they showed themselves to be active, and impressive, members of their society. No longer slaves, they demanded full engagement in America.

"Letting it go" is not the same as forgetting. Some people have likened Hargrove's statement to asking a Jew to let the Holocaust go. While he didn't go that far, I will: as the son of a Jew and a relative of many who were killed in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Majdanek, and other death camps, I hereby forgive all Germans for the Holocaust. I will continue to honor my dead relatives, but I refuse to allow their murderers to continue to marginalize me. I cannot be a victim of the Holocaust unless I allow myself to become one, and I am not willing to do that.

3. "Not a soul in [Virginia's current] legislature had anything to do with slavery"
I would go further: there is not a single living slave or slave-owner in the United States today. And, to be honest, people are having to go back further and further to keep slavery alive. For example, in his rebuttal to Hargrove, Delegate McEachin said that when he looks into the eyes of his 102-year-old grandmother, whose parents were slaves, "quite frankly, it's hard to get over it." Let's be clear here: McEachin is claiming that he can see the misery of his great-grandparents in the eyes of his grandmother, who is over a century old.

Is it possible that he's reading too much into this? Could he be seeing projections of his own political agenda reflected in her cataracts?

Now, I'm a Virginian, born and raised, and even after I leave this state, I will take much of Virginia with me. However, my great-great grandfather, Seymour Burroughs, fought for the North and was wounded in the Civil War. Here's his picture:

Another one of my great-great grandfathers, Charles Martin, also fought for the North, as did my great-great-great grandfather, Abraham Bowen. As the descendant of at least three Northern soldiers, I find it somewhat ridiculous that I have to apologize for slavery. And the same goes for millions of other Virginians, many of whom are the descendants of slaves. However, to the extent that the Virginia General Assembly represents me, so will their apology.

To look at it another way, we could spend the rest of our lives writing letters of apology and never come close to finishing. For example, my mother's folk are Jews from Eastern Europe. Clearly, I deserve apologies from Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, and Germany. While we're at it, I could use an apology from Rome, as they were responsible for the diaspora. In return, I will apologize for handing Jesus over to the Romans. My bad; we should have handled that in-house.

On behalf of my father's Scottish and Irish relatives, I demand apologies and restitution from the English. In return, I apologize for James VI and I, Charles I, Charles II...hell, I apologize for the entire House of Stuart. My father's English relatives, in turn, demand an apology, and restitution, from the Romans. For that matter, the French owe us an apology as well: we haven't forgotten about William the Conqueror, you Norman bastards!

This could go on and on. While we're at it, it's probably a good idea to remember that many of the Africans who showed up on these shores were sold to white men by other Africans. Do any of us have clean hands?

This is not to say that the Commonwealth of Virginia doesn't owe some serious apologies, and restitution, to its African-American citizens. Wages for blacks continue to lag far behind wages for whites. This is due, in large part, to the lower quality of inner-city schools and infrastructure. Virginia's continued inability to properly educate and care for its minority citizens is a blight on its record and an embarrassment. The same goes for Virginia's eugenics program, which was finally abolished in 1974. Passed as SB 281 in 1924, the Virginia Eugenics law allowed the sterilization of individuals who were considered retarded or otherwise genetically undesirable. An outsized percentage of these people were black. The same day this law was passed, the House of Delegates also ratified SB 219, also known as the "Racial Integrity Act." This law prevented marriage between "white persons" and "non-white persons." It was on the books until 1975.

In 2001, Virginia issued public apologies for its eugenics program. It has also paid compensation to victims of the program.

The victims of slavery are dead and buried, but racism still exists and still continues to victimize all of us. It seems to me that we need to focus on today's problems, not issue self-congratulating apologies for issues that have been dead for over a hundred years.

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  • I don't have any white guilt b/c I go by the individual. It's not fair that my place in the world has given me more potential wealth than more than 95% of the world but life is not fair. What about the Neanderthals we might have beat out for survival 30,000 years ago in Europe?

    The past is the past and we must move forward. We are biological organisms competing w/ one another and that's what's happened in the past.

    The only thing to do now is to continue to "wake up" and sanctify the notion of "human dignity."

    By Blogger Matt, At January 29, 2007 at 10:41 AM  

  • And not for nothing but how about they stop waisting our time here in Virginia and put up a resolution that might actually mean something? How about a consensus vote on the death penalty?

    By Blogger Matt, At January 29, 2007 at 10:43 AM  

  • Crankster, as a man w/ German heritage, I accept your apology. Let's move on dot org.

    By Blogger Matt, At January 29, 2007 at 11:16 AM  

  • It takes little effort to apologize, especially for deeds which one did not personally commit. Such apologies really serve no purpose but to make the apologists feel smugly vindicated and off the hook. Legislators should not be allowed to get off so easily, but should be forced to actually DO
    something useful for their constituents.

    Apologies are empty, in any event, unless they are accompanied by a sincere effort to change things. Since the institution of slavery has already been changed, it would be well to dedicate more energy, funds, and creativity to equalizing the pay scales and educational opportunities for all children.

    They need to put their money where their mouths are.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At January 29, 2007 at 2:40 PM  

  • You raise some valid points, and argue them very persuasively. But I have to disagree with you on this one.

    First, 140 years is no time at all in the greater scheme of things. An African American friend once suggested to me that I imagine that Germany had triumphed in WWI, enslaved my Nowegian family, and gave them the surname "Wilhelm" for convenience.

    How many generataions would need to pass, she said, before I would forget my own name? In other words, there are thousands of African American families with names like Washington and Jefferson, who are reminded of their slave origins each time they sign their names.

    I myself have talked to very old African Americans who told me of the the first-person stories they heard from their own grandparents about the slave days. Cultural memory is longer than we'd like to believe, and 140 years isn't much time at all, it seems to me.

    Another perspective was offered to me by an African American professor at the University of Minnesota, who rightly pointed out that the people who most believe we should "get beyond" race issues are those who aren't in the least affected by them. Like you, I sometimes wish we'd just put it behind us. But that's very easy for me to say, because race has really caused me no problems whatsoever.

    I would rather imagine that there are wealthy tobacco families in Virginia who enjoy their current lifestyle thanks to an economic system that included slavery less than two centuries ago. So how can you say those issues no longer apply? If I"m fabulously rich, and you're not, and the reason I'm rich is that my great-great grandfather owned your great-great could I expect you to just "get over it"?

    I think we'll just need to "agree to disagree" on this one.

    By Blogger Mystic Wing, At January 29, 2007 at 3:59 PM  

  • BTW:

    Have not yet seen Equilibrium, but will look for it based on your recommendation. I recall hearing about it, but missed it in release.

    By Blogger Mystic Wing, At January 29, 2007 at 4:05 PM  

  • Matt-
    You're lucky. I've got white guilt out the wazoo. Of course, I was raised Catholic, so I've got every other kind of guilt as well.

    BTW, I was forgiving you. German bastard.

    You made my point much more succinctly and less controversially than I did. I feel like an apology for slavery does little beyond bringing up hard feelings on one side and creating self-satisfaction on the other. Actions are far more eloquent.

    Mystic Wing-
    You bring up some very good points. And, regardless of my feelings on this issue, I don't have to live it every day. Thanks for weighing in.

    By Blogger Crankster, At January 29, 2007 at 5:41 PM  

  • It's ironic really that whilst many of the plantation owners in the US were British, and much of our empire was buitl on slave labour, the issue is no longer relevant or discussed here. Ok, so we abolished slavery a while before the US did, but politically, it's never been the issue it clearly still is over there. I find that very strange. Of course, we have race issues, and we have equlaity issues but as your senator said, we seem to have 'got over' slavery.

    I used t feel guilty at the actions of my ancestors, but honestly, life's too short! We learn from the past and live in the present. Or at least we should. And time, energy and money is far more productively focussed on sorting out the problems of today.


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At January 29, 2007 at 6:32 PM  

  • Oh, Crankster. I misunderstood. Funny thing. I recently attended a Chanukah observance and was mistaken--by the Aryan blonde at the door--for a celebrant and was given a yarmulke.

    There for work purposes, I got the stare-down from a "real" Jew. I mean, what can I say? I felt like the fox in the hen house. I also have "Aryan" Polish heritage. People don't realize this, but many of the non-Jewish Poles were complicit in the pogrom.

    But I got the spirit!

    By Blogger Matt, At January 29, 2007 at 6:33 PM  

  • My view on this topic is this:
    by creating early intervention in schools, equal pay, and community programs would be nice all around.It would show all Americans we respect each other.

    On another note, I hate independent school districts. Northern VA has done an exceptional job of running their schools and school programs through the county. This has meant eqaul educational opportunities to all in the county. I think that shows a positive level of respect and inclusion the rest of the country should get on board with.

    (thanks for the soap box!)

    By Blogger Pickled Olives, At January 29, 2007 at 9:13 PM  

  • I agree w/ Pickled. WTF w/ independent school districts?! Let's all reinvent the wheel while we're at it...

    By Blogger Matt, At January 30, 2007 at 10:27 AM  

  • Puss-
    When I lived in London, it seemed to me that class was the British version of race. It seems like we all have our little things that we use to separate one group from another. Anything to avoid dealing with the real problems of our societies and world!

    Matt the first-
    They give out free yarmulkes at most Jewish religious events. For a while there, lots of my Jewish friends were having Bar Mitzvahs, and I amassed quite the collection of yarmulkes. I rated them by quality of fabric, strength of stitching, etc. My favorite one was bright red, and made me look like a Cardinal.

    Poland, unfortunately, has a long history of virulent anti-semitism. Particularly saddening, as I love the place...

    Olives and Matt-
    Right there with you on school districts. I'm particularly disheartened by the miseries of Richmond schools, which are only a few miles from the riches of Albermarle county schools. This is not the way to pursue equal opportunity!!

    By Blogger Crankster, At January 30, 2007 at 11:28 AM  

  • Yes, everyone's ancestors did something to someone at some point. However, demanding an apology really won't settle the score...because like you mentioned...all the people involved are pretty much dead. So, what is a society to do? When everyone starts getting treated fairly...that could be a first step...

    By Blogger Claudia, At January 30, 2007 at 12:02 PM  

  • So let me understand this, please. In 1974, to make up for years of discrimination, the Federal Government, followed by a huge number of Corporations, made promotions weighted towards minorities and and women. This was supposed to make things better, give minorities a hand up, and make things 'right' for those who had been oppressed.

    I distinctly remember being told by a Catholic Priest at the FAA when I asked if this wasn't discriminatory, that it was, but that sometimes it was OK to make things right again.

    This doesn't change anything you have discussed so far. It's just something that's never discussed, just sort of swept under the rug. so to speak.

    By Blogger The CEO, At January 30, 2007 at 4:10 PM  

  • Claudia-
    It's really interesting that my original argument seems to lead so naturally to the issue of fair and evenhanded treatment for everyone. I agree with you--that's the solution.

    I guess that one of the things that's putting me into conflict with my own liberalism is items like this. It doesn't seem to me that discrimination, regardless of its intent, is fair. And institutionalized discrimination is an insult to the ideals of our country.

    By Blogger Crankster, At January 30, 2007 at 5:52 PM  

  • A few points:

    I've lived in Virginia for most of my life and have seen this issue come up again and again. It's a lot of talk and frustration but never accomplishes anything. I'm with Crankster on this one.

    I had a babysitter from the time I was 3 months old who is black, Rosa. She's 91. She's lived through Jim Crow and segregation and integration and the whole deal. An apology isn't going to give her a new start or a new life. When I first brought up the topic of a slavery apology, she looked at me and said "Well, I reckon I never knew anyone who was a slave." She didn't. She was born in 1916. People who were born into slavery were in their 60s; people who actually worked as slaves were older. Rosa doesn't remember any interactions with slaves and she says no one owes any slavery apologies to her or to the kids who stand around on her street corner at night.

    Of course no politician is actually visiting elderly black people and asking their opinion on it. And how many elderly black people do you see calling for this? Exactly.

    On the issue of slavery's descendants: I went to high school with a few Hemings children, direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Harriet Hemings. They were all offered a full-ride to UVA if they provided proof of lineage and qualifying GPA and SAT scores. It's not an unreasonable request: many members of the family are qualified for and have attended and graduated from UVA. According to everything I know from my own interactions and reading about the Hemings family and other descendants of slaves and slaveowners, it's often a source of pride, whether because of the famous lineage or because of their unique place in history. Whether it was rape and ownership or a consensual affair that resulted from proximity (which was, of course, a result of an oppressive system), the descendants are descendants of both sides of the issue. They are part slave and part slaveowner and they wouldn't be here if it weren't for that sexual interaction that took place centuries ago. A person can only take so much self-hate and confusion before they stand up and move on.

    No one thinks slavery was a good idea. It wasn't quite stupid - given the lack of technology and the type of world in which it was developed - but it certainly was not humane. And becoming rich on of someone else's work is not something to be proud of.

    Anyone see the Saved by the Bell where Jesse found out her ancestors were slavetraders? She felt awful. And those of us who grew up with black and white friends in the South felt equally awful when Civil Rights came up in elementary school and we realized what schmucks we could have been if we had been born a few decades earlier. Quite the burden for a 7 year-old. Not as bad a burden as, say, working the fields, but still. Then you realize Dr. King was colorblind and we all came around eventually and you learn to dislike and disown people who haven't come around yet and it's all okay, you don't owe apologies for being white. Until some politician needs a soundbite...

    I'll also say this: Once a few years ago, a professor of mine spent a whole day talking about slavery and civil rights and the history of the KKK at our school. She told us to go home and write a poem about how it made us feel. I wrote my poem about current issues in Africa - AIDS, mining, genocide, child sex slavery, and civil war - and how there was nothing I could do about bad things that happened before I was born. She didn't mention apologies for slavery again.

    There are kids in 9th grade in Virginia (and New York and Houston and New Orleans and other school districts where I have not worked) who do not have a basic grasp of phonics because their school districts are underfunded. Many of those kids are black, Hispanic, or just poor and white. An apology does not give them knowledge or food or survival skills in this world. Instead, it provides an excuse for this generation to continue to be victims of slavery rather than becoming the survivors their ancestors wished for them to be.

    And that's all I have to say about that. I think.

    By Blogger GalliganRising, At January 31, 2007 at 1:35 AM  

  • Galligan-
    I think you pretty much said it all.

    By Blogger misanthropster, At February 1, 2007 at 8:40 PM  

  • Yeah, and then some. If Crankster didn't have such great topics, I would probably post on my own blog...

    By Blogger GalliganRising, At February 2, 2007 at 12:06 AM  

  • As an englishman, I can say there's a debate here. But I come from a long line of peasants, so far as I know. My ancestors were always in effect the property of their feudal lords.
    The Lord of the manor could take what he wished, and despite our Magna Carta, and the writ of Habeas Corpus, if you were not a noble, you were not in control of your own destiny.
    In later times, the press gang was instituted to feed the navy with unwilling men. An able bodied man about his business might be seized, chained and thrown into a cart. there he would be taken aboard a ship and effectively imprisoned. It might be years before he was allowed ashore, for fear he might try escape. If, of course, he did escape, he would be sentenced to death.
    Or starvation sent men into the army. recruiting sergeants in this area carried Havercakes, rich oatbread. A starving man might be tempted to stop and ask.... These sergeants were the glazing and florida retirement home salesmen of their day, very persuasive, full of tricks.. regaling young starved tattered men with stories of riches to be won, food even MEAT! and they'd give the lad a mug of ale... sometimes, when he'd drunk it, he might find a silver shilling at the bottom... Riches! too late, by being in posession of the king's shilling, he was deemed to have signed on as a soldier. there go the next twenty years... or as many as he might hope to live.
    My point is that slaves were no worse off than the poor free people of europe.
    Furthermore, it was not a european invention, europeans came across a thriving existing slaving culture in Africa, where tribes enslaved their neighbours and Arab traders sold african slaves around the east.
    Anybody who thinks that an apology is due, might like to ask who captured and sold the ancestors of the people they are apologising to.

    By Blogger soubriquet, At February 3, 2007 at 2:55 PM  

  • Soubriquet-
    You have an interesting angle on this. In America, we tend to get hung up on the racial aspect of slavery. When you take that away, it clarifies a lot of the underlying issues. Thank you!

    And thanks for stopping by.

    By Blogger Crankster, At February 4, 2007 at 10:57 PM  

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