The Legacy of Slavery
I stepped inside the door and turned off the lights. Then I walked to the window and pulled down the shades. “Close your eyes,” I instructed the students in my high school U.S. History class. “Imagine that you are standing in the center of your living room. Discard all the furniture. Take away the windows. First, remove the rugs from the floor; then, eliminate the floor. Get rid of all the appliances, wall hangings, and lighting fixtures. Dispose of everything until the room is completely bare, except for you. Lastly, imagine that you are black.”
That was how I introduced the concept of slavery in the American South; and, depending on the effectiveness of their imaginations, it worked. I would use a different approach today. I would show them Steve McQueen’s powerful movie, “Twelve Years a Slave”, and ask them to look into the eyes of Solomon Northrup, portrayed by the amazing actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. Northrop was a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Through his eyes, they would watch as black men and women were penned, prodded like cattle, and sold to the highest bidder. They would see families torn apart and sent to separate plantations. They would experience the degradation of humans forced to work in the fields from sunup to sundown, then wakened from their sleep to dance for their masters’ entertainment. They would see young women used as sex objects then beaten for their complicity. They would watch as a people became so dominated by owners and overseers they would become automatons, not daring to help fellow slaves for fear of punishment. They would enter into the mind of the slaveowner who viewed his “niggers” as property to be used for economic expediency—and make no mistake, slavery was all about economics. If it weren’t profitable, it would not have continued.
Once they had a sense of what it meant to be a slave, we would go on to explore the concepts of equality and human dignity, focusing on Jefferson's immortal phrase in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights...life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." There was a serious discrepancy between Jefferson's theory and his practice. He was a slaveowner who carried on a lifelong affair with one of his chattels. Since Jefferson was not the first to proclaim equality among men, I took students back 300 years and had them read Thomas Hobbes treatise on government, Leviathan, the foundation for most western political philosophy in which Hobbes, an English philosopher, declared "Nature has made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he."
Hobbes and the Declaration notwithstanding, the promise of freedom and equality were a long time coming for people of color. We read the Emancipation Proclamation, but students were quick to see that the document only freed slaves in the states that had seceded and was, there virtually unenforceable. We read the Civil War amendments to the Constitution that outlawed slavery everywhere, assured everyone the right to due process, and promised all eligible males the right to vote. The last, proposed in 1869 wasn't enforced until 1970. And we learned that, good intentions notwithstanding, you cannot legislate equality. Poll taxes, property requirements, and literacy tests continued to deny black people the right to vote. Segregation was rampant in both North and South. And bigotry was ingrained in the minds of many.
We read a heartbreaking example of this in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s powerful short story, “The Lynching of Jube Benson”, written in 1904 and set in the fictional town of Happy Hollow. Dunbar explains that Happy Hollow exists wherever “…Negroes colonise in cities or villages: north or south”. A physician sits talking to a group of his peers. A young reporter in the group says he would like to see a real, lynching. Others agreed that they would, as well. The doctor mentioned that he had actually participated in a lynching. Pressed by the others, he told his story—which the reporter surreptitiously recorded. It had happened seven years earlier in a nearby town where the doctor treated both black and white inhabitants. He fell in love with a young girl named Annie whom he hoped to marry. He made a special friend of a young black man named Jube Benson who was also attached to Annie as a kind of loyal retainer. When the doctor fell victim to a plague that beset the town, Jube tended to him day and night. During his illness, Annie was viciously attacked and died. Her last words were, …”that black…” Everyone immediately thought of Jube, who was black and, unfortunately, missing. When they found him in the woods, they took him into custody and, despite his protestations of innocence, lynched him. As he was hanging, his brother ran in with the real culprit, a white ruffian found hiding in the barn. Only then did the doctor go back inside and examine the skin under the dead girl’s fingernails. It was white. He also found strands of short brown hair belonging to the guilty man. The doctor offered to help carry Jube’s body home, but was refused. Those who had stood by and watched bared their heads as Jube was carried away. “That, gentleman, was my last lynching,” declared the doctor.
It was not necessary to say anything after they finished the story.
The Way It Is
So, what has changed? Fast forward to the present. If I were teaching now, I would add a few other readings to update the story. I would bring in the copy of GQ in which Phil Robertson, patriarch of A & E’s Duck Dynasty clan, comments on race relations, (growing up in Louisiana he swore he never witnessed discrimination-- black people were all happy and content with their lot); homosexuality (bestial behavior not to be condoned); and loose morals (people sleeping around with anyone and everyone). The result of his ranting? Sales of his book, “Happy, Happy, Happy” are soaring; and advertisers are paying big bucks for spots on his television show.
Even worse than the acceptance of racial inequality is its effect on young people. We condemn gangs and gang behavior but do little about discovering why kids join gangs or offering viable social and economic alternatives. For the most telling rationale for gang violence, I would assign a New York Times Magazine article by Ronan Farrow. It concerns a gang member, not on the streets of Chicago’s South Side, but in a land far removed. Farrow, a journalist, was touring a refugee camp in the Jebel Marra region of the Sudan. He met a young rebel his own age, a refugee from Darfur whose family had been slaughtered. It’s a classic story. The boy, Yahia, was holding a gun. He raised it to the sky and shouted, ”This is how I can have my voice heard. How can you judge me for that?” How, indeed? No doubt the answer will come on a day far distant from this one.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times