Lately I’ve been giving a lot of the thought to the state of race relations in this country. Not surprising, the nomination of Barack Obama was bound to have this effect of our country. How far we’ve come, how far we still have to go. The words of Rev. Wright set off a fire storm of comment both in defense of his words, but also loud out cries of “un-American”, “unpatriotic”. His words struck me as neither, but what did occur to me is just how differently we all view America, and our past. It also occurred to me that over a century later how we still haven’t come to terms with the entire issue of slavery and it’s impact on the American psyche. I remember using the term “the good old days” in some discussion in my 9th grade English class and my teacher replied “good old days is rather subjective”. He happened to be a black man, and I understood right off the point he was making. And I think the point is still valid, and I think if you dig a little deeper you will come to understand what divides so many of us.
I as a white American have an entirely different view of historic America and who Americans are than my African American friends do. It doesn’t matter that my family for the most part came to this country in the later half of the 19th Century. The glories of the American Revolution I accept as part of my heritage, but the issue of slavery I would shrug off with the thought “well that happened before my people came here”. I suspect this attitude in not all that uncommon among white Americans. My childhood education was filled with stories that spoke of the heroism of Americans, images of a brave Dolly Madison fleeing a burning White House, portrait of George Washington rescued. Little mention that the house from which she fled was built by slaves, little mention that the building in which are laws are made was erected mostly with slave labor. Images of southern belles fanning themselves against the summer heat are just as much a part of the American psyche as any other, but how many of us actually take a moment to lift the curtain on such a pretty scene and view the injustice and brutality that went into supporting that image, not many I suspect. Please don’t think I mean to lay all the blame for the sin of slavery on the South, far from it. The northern states reaped many a reward from the free labor pool that existed in the South. No northern merchant to the best of my knowledge ever refused payment for goods just because the money had been earned on the backs of the Negro slave. No Northern mill owner turned away the cotton that fed his machinery or fattened his purse.
Almost a century and half after the civil war people still debate the displaying of the Stars and Bars, with the claim it’s just a display in the pride of Southern heritage, well so is the whip and noose, yet no one attempts to run them up a flag pole under the claim of pride in one’s heritage. What is the point I’m trying to make? The point is it isn’t just the color of our skin that separates us, it’s our collective view of who we are as a people and how we got to where we are today. Until we can recognize the African American experience in this country for what it, just as much a part of America as the stars on the flag there isn’t much hope. It’s time for white America to start honoring and embracing the black experience in America and stop writing it off as something to be gotten over.
P.S. I’m not certain I’ve been able to articulate what I want to in this post, it’s a topic so filled with landmines and misunderstanding I find it hard to find the right words to express what I mean. At the very least I hope I’ve started us on a dialog that should be important to all of us.