Should there be an apology for slavery--an article

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Posted by Patrick Saunders on July 23, 1998 at 21:15:09:

>Apologize For Slavery?
>Without an Apology, Blacks and Whites Will Never Get Along.
>An Opinion From Naomi Wolf
>for George Magazine
>We build memorials to what we want to remember, but a glance at our public
>monuments also shows just what we want to forget. Just off the Mall in
>Washington, D.C., there's a vast museum devoted to a holocaust that took place
>in Europe; near the Potomac, there's a beloved memorial to a slaughter that
>unfolded in Southeast Asia. But you'd have to look long and hard over the
>American landscape to find any prominent recognition of our own homegrown
>holocaust-of the 250 years during which up to one American in five was held,
>scourged, and bred as chattel.
>America has a willful amnesia about its slave past. Daily life in Colonial
>Williamsburg has been painstakingly re-created for the sake of tourists. In
>the West, towns re-enact the days of the gold rush. But at the sites of the
>notorious slave markets---where thousands of African families were dispersed
>while sustaining the economies that supported white families---there is little
>or no commemoration. Ellis Island's makeover is a gleaming piece of historical
>preservation; but in Auburn, New York, the house of Harriet Tubman, which was
>a famous station on the Underground Railroad, now lies in disrepair, its
>preservation left to the amateur efforts of local citizens who raise funds to
>maintain it. The slave quarters at Mount Vernon carefully explain the
>production of horseshoes and tallow: Tools are displayed, but not whips or
>shackles. No multimedia archives bother to chronicle the histories of, and
>relationships between, the enslaved Americans who served the father of our
>country. Little attention is paid to the bitter irony that while George
>Washington allowed his slaves to wed, the state of Virginia refused to legally
>recognize those unions.
>White America wants to forget. Two decades ago, the miniseries Roots was a
>major pop culture event because it gave names and faces to historical shadows,
>but its theme was palatable to whites only because it led, ultimately, to

>assimilation and redemption. In contrast, Steven Spielberg's recent
>Amistad---a straightforward and unsettling account of the subjection of
>Africans in the slave trade-sank like a stone.
>Plenty of whites would say that memorializing our slave past is worse than
>unimportant, that it is destructive to the present. Controversy attended
>efforts to obtain congressional funding for a museum of slavery on the Mall.
>Southern struggles over the Confederate flag are routine and bitter. Whites'
>reactions to blacks' insistence on memorializing slavery are strong: "I didn't
>own any slaves. Why should I apologize?" as one recent caller to a talk-radio
>station characteristically argued. When congressman Tony P. Hall, a white
>Democrat from Ohio, raised the subject of an apology for slavery as a "step
>toward healing," he was deluged with criticism. President Clinton typically
>waffled on this issue when, last August, he chose to leave the decision on
>whether to apologize for slavery up to his race advisory board. Eight months
>later, inching toward a more complete gesture, he sort of apologized for the
>slave trade-in Africa, to the descendants of Africans who were left behind by
>it; not in America to the descendants of those who were captured and bred in
>captivity. "The United States has not always done the right thing by Africa,"
>he said with a truly farcical note of understatement. "Going back to the time
>before we were even a nation, European Americans received the fruits of the
>slave trade and we were wrong in that."
>Why does an apology matter? Why is memorializing our slave past important for
>the present? These things matter because without them, both sides remain
>stuck. The mass denial of slavery by the dominant culture creates what denial
>creates in any dysfunctional family: inflamed articulation of the denied truth
>by the injured party. The more one family member silences, the more the other
>symbolically over emotes. When a black man was recently dragged to his death
>by three whites in Jasper, Texas, whites quoted in news coverage swore that
>the savage murder was an isolated event, as if they were unconscious of the
>history of lynching in towns just like theirs. In reaction to such denial, the
>African-Americans quoted were inclined toward conspiracy theories. "At this
>point," one woman reportedly said, "I'll believe anything."
>How would proper memorials of slavery heal this stalemate? Memorials reflect
>the depth of our caring. As a Jew, I know rage wells within me toward
>contemporary Germans when I see a cheap tin marker over a subway entrance in
>the heart of Berlin commemorating a roundup of local Jews. The slightness of
>the marker undermines my trust in my German peers---even though the historic
>tragedy is now distant from us.
>Apologies between groups matter for the same reason they matter between
>individuals in intimate relationships: They help keep the relationship
>healthy. The recent wave of international apologies speaks to the power of
>this fact. Why should we care whether Switzerland returns what are often
>insignificant amounts of money to Jews? Not because of the money but because

>of the lingering denial. Why did the pope's semi-apology for the Catholic
>Church's collusion with Nazism reinforce Jewish distrust of Catholicism?
>Precisely because of its tone of self-exoneration. In contrast, France's
>unstinting apology for its collusion with the Vichy government and Australia's
>wholehearted Sorry Day, in which the entire continent expresses regret for
>separating Aboriginal children from their parents, will both go a long way
>toward genuine healing-the kind we in this country should note with envy.
>Finally, particularly where children are concerned, apologies reflect the
>value assigned to a given relationship. Without an apology from whites for the
>centuries during which black children were bought and sold, black kids grow up
>wondering if the dominant culture will ever value them enough for their
>efforts within the system to really work. The fact is, conspiracies against
>black Americans have been real. Slavery itself was a conspiracy. So were the
>post- Reconstruction years, when whites banded together to cheat blacks out of
>fair prices for their cotton and white police forces conspired to frame black
>defendants. Without an apology that acknowledges this reality, black off-the-
>wall conspiracy theorizing will continue to assert itself. Hence, for example,
>the widespread beliefs that the CIA invented AIDS and that the LAPD framed
>An apology in this case is not an expression of personal guilt. It is an
>expression of regret, of shared sorrow. Popular spiritualist Marianne
>Williamson, who is often mocked for saying things America isn't ready to hear,
>conducts an experiment with her audiences: She has white people stand and
>apologize to blacks in the audience for racism and the harm it has inflicted
>upon their families and children. I watched this once, squirming with
>discomfort; I was sure it would be offensive, a sham, superficial, insulting,
>phony-all the things we fear when the issue of an apology comes up. To my
>astonishment, after the apology the mood in the room changed in a way I have
>never before felt in America: There was an almost tangible lightening of
>tension for both the blacks and the whites. It was a mood in which one could
>actually move on. As one old black woman said, with tears running down her
>cheeks, "I've been waiting my whole life to hear a white man say that to me."
>In a bad marriage, every little friction symbolizes the larger sense of being
>held in contempt or feeling betrayed. That's where we are now. In a good
>marriage, a fight, no matter how bad it gets, is just a fight. That's where an
>apology can take us. So in the interest of starting with what I can, I want to
>say, for the record, about this great harm: I am so sorry.
>Naomi Wolf writes her colunmn
>American Dreams for
>George Magazine.
>Tell her what you think by sending email.

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