(Originally published in the Saturday, December 27, 2008 edition of The Oregonian. This article reflects similar sentiments that I have regarding this issue, therefore I found it blogworthy. Enjoy.)
Americans love commemorations. We mark the anniversaries of events that speak to our national identity with much pomp and circumstance.
Just two years ago, our nation capped a three-year celebration of the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition that involved commemorative coins, dozens of events across the country, classroom lessons and a postage stamp. Next year a great deal will be made of the 150th birthday of our state and the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.
But with just days left in the year, there’s one bicentennial our nation is letting pass with little notice: 2008 marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the U.S. slave trade. (Of course, while the slave trade ended, domestic slavery lasted nearly another 60 years and it took the nation’s bloodiest war to end it.)
That we would not honor this anniversary in a land where slavery preceded even the founding of the nation, where slavery built the very economy that made us a superpower, where slavery is the reason for the existence of 37 million of its citizens, speaks to our inability — or perhaps unwillingness — to deal with the legacy of our country’s original sin.
Last year, Great Britain marked the bicentennial of the abolition of its slave trade by setting aside $40 million for exhibits, events, conferences, school programs, stamps and coins. It opened the International Slavery Museum. The BBC devoted hours of reporting to retracing British involvement in the slave trade and the lasting legacy.
But America has greeted this marker toward the eventual emancipation of millions of its citizens with virtual silence. President George W. Bush signed legislation establishing a commission to commemorate the anniversary, but he gave the commission no money, and no national remembrances ever came of it.
Marcus Rediker is a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the book “Slave Ship: A Human History.” He says he’s been struck by the contrast between Britain’s “extensive and robust discussion” of the bicentennial and the “almost total absence of discussion in the U.S. in 2008.”
“It’s a curious thing,” Rediker says. “because I happen to think the abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade was one of the most virtuous things the U.S. has ever done and should be cause for remembrance and celebration.”
Some Americans might ask: Why can’t we just move on? Slavery is long past, and to talk about it picks at old wounds.
That we still find it so difficult to publicly acknowledge what has been one of the greatest influences on our nation tells us that we have yet to get over it. That these old wounds carry the scabs of time but have yet to heal.
“A tremendous amount of energy goes into denying that we have this dark history,” Rediker says. “It doesn’t go well with the national mythology.”
In some ways, such an acknowledgment is easier for Britain. Britain didn’t enslave many Africans on its own soil and so does not daily deal with millions of descendants of this vile institution.
In other words, Great Britain just wasn’t that close to it.
Many Americans would like to think we weren’t close to it, as well. We’ll tell ourselves our family never lived in the South. Never owned a slave. Maybe didn’t even arrive on U.S. shores until slavery had been abolished.
But slavery is a national sin. If we embrace the virtues of our founding, we must embrace the vices. We can’t feel pride for the Revolutionary War or the liberation of Europe during World War II, but then remove ourselves from the more shameful history such as slavery or the genocide of Native Americans.
Thomas DeWolf of Bend found out being from Northern stock and living in a “free” state such as Oregon does not clean hands make.
Until a few years ago, DeWolf was what he calls a typical white guy who didn’t think much about slavery and really didn’t see what it had to do with him. But then DeWolf met a cousin in 2001 who was working on a documentary (released this year) about his ancestor, James D’Wolf. D’Wolf was the largest slave trader in the United States and died the second-wealthiest man in the country, single-handedly responsible for bringing to these shores the ancestors of 500,000 present-day African Americans. And D’Wolf was a Northerner who operated out of America’s slave-trading capital: Rhode Island.
As DeWolf and nine family members embarked on a journey to trace his family’s involvement in the slave trade, he learned that slavery touched and enriched every aspect of the American economy. Banks financed it. Insurance companies arose to insure it. Northern mills spun Southern cotton, spawning the Industrial Revolution. Shipbuilders built the slaving vessels, ironworkers forged the shackles, farmers grew the food for the voyages. (Twelve of our first 18 presidents owned slaves.)
For DeWolf, the realization of how deeply slavery is intertwined into the fabric of our country, into the roots of his own family, felt like a sucker punch. “It was a big struggle,” he said. “It was, ‘Wait, I am not a bad person.’”
But DeWolf said he soon realized it wasn’t about him. It was about the truth, about no longer turning a blind eye.
“Slavery in the 1800s was like oil today. It was an economic engine,” DeWolf says. “For those who arrived in this country after the Civil War or arrived last week, what it is that made this land the land of opportunity was the stolen labor of African people. This is our shared connection.”
It is no wonder that getting Americans to acknowledge this part of our history in any real way has been difficult.
President Bill Clinton caused a firestorm in the 1990s when he publicly considered a national apology for slavery. He quickly backed off. And after years of trying, this year the House adopted a resolution apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow. But it happened so quietly, in late July, that few people probably even took notice. The Senate has not passed a similar resolution.
But states and private institutions are beginning to act on their own. In recent years, several states have publicly apologized for slavery, and several universities and companies have begun to research their roles in slavery. And this year, the American Medical Association and the Episcopal Church have apologized for their treatment of African Americans.
Some think this silly. Why, they ask, should the government or companies that now have nothing to do with the scourge of slavery apologize? DeWolf has an easy answer. How can we get over something that has never been apologized for?
“Me as an individual, I never owned anyone, never participated in slavery,” he says. “But the very least that I owe is an acknowledgment of the impact and the history.”
The U.S. government, he says, owes much more. It did practice and permit slavery. It did write slavery into its laws, even the Constitution. The government does not simply represent those of us living right now, it operates on a continuum and represents all that we’ve been. To say slavery has nothing to do with how we live today is to say that the Constitution doesn’t, either.
Our nation has come a long way. From designating black people as property to electing its first black president. But we cannot tell one story without the other.
It is time that we acknowledge all of the history in between. That which makes us feel good. That which makes us thankful for how far we’ve come. And that which shows us how far we have yet to go.
Let not our nation’s failings continue to be our own. This year will end without a significant acknowledgment of the important step toward true liberty taken 200 years ago. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take a few moments to reflect among ourselves before this year is done.