Maybe my soul caught wind of an upcoming controversy, because for a while now I've been carrying around Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in my work bag. I suspected his testimony was relevant for today. I never predicted Douglass would also be trending.
The recent remarks of Donald Trump on Black History Month have sparked quite a controversy, but they also brought Frederick Douglass back into the national conversation. Despite the circumstances, it is always good to hear what Frederick Douglass has to say to us today.
I have been completely engrossed in his story. It's extremely helpful in understanding what slavery looked like in day-to-day life and imagining the lingering impacts that history would have today. Some of the incidents in his book may never leave me.
Douglass goes into great detail about the evils of Slavery. Families were torn apart. People were prevented from knowing their own relatives or even the date of their own birth. Slaves had virtually no say in their life circumstances and could be permanently separated from loved ones at any moment. Mothers could be stripped of their children for the slightest offenses and sometimes for no discernible reason whatsoever. Slaves were not just whipped--let's call it what it was--torture was a way of life for many. Mind games and abuse of alcohol were all used to cripple and manipulate black folk into accepting the lifestyle of slavery. One of the most serious offences was educating a black person. Black people were kept as poorly educated as possible.
Those evils did not suddenly vanish when slavery formally ended 150 years ago. Imagine being torn apart from your own parents at a young age. That will be a pain you may have to wrestle with the rest of your life. It may also impact how you parent your own children. It could take generations for that pain to be healed, even if someone works very hard to heal it. Before that can happen, lives may be destroyed as people use better and worse ways to cope with that pain. That's just one example in a long line of atrocities which black Americans have endured.
All of these evils can persist for generations even with strong efforts to undo them. In the case of slavery, most of American society (in particular: white American society) did not even make minimal efforts to correct these evils.
The need for a New Reconstruction
After the Civil War, the bloodiest of all American wars, much was done to promote reconciliation and reconstruction--but that was almost exclusively among white people. That Reconstruction was in so many ways a huge success. While there is still lingering resentment to this day along Civil War battle lines, overall the healing of the nation has been largely successful. In other countries, there could be decades of skirmishes, in-fighting, battles and other acts of violence that could occasionally pop up. There could be a series of wars. Virtually none of that happened in America. When the Civil War ended, it was basically over--for white America. In other countries, after a civil war, the winning side could have spent a lot of effort hurting down the leaders of the opposition and settling old scores and grudges. We didn't do that. A lot of effort was made to start fresh and move forward in as much of a positive way as possible.
But this was primarily only between white Americans. America society in general never attempted the same kind of reconstruction with black people.
Imagine taking a people from their homeland in Africa. They were subjugated to the evils of slavery for hundreds of years. They were systematically stripped of their cultural, linguistic and family identities. Slaves were prevented from knowing much about their families and from even knowing their own birthdays. Decisions could be made to separate them from loved ones at any moment. They were manipulated with alcohol and alcoholism. They were kept purposefully uneducated and then mocked for being uneducated.
Then suddenly, the gates of the plantations were open and slaves were free to go. White America could wash its hands of the evils of slavery and move on, right?
Not so fast. No only did American society in general do very little to reconcile with the former slaves, but it also gave them additional obstacles that the rest of American society did not have. Jim Crow laws were in effect for a hundred years after slavery. Black people were technically “free” but constantly harassed, marginalized, segregated and discriminated against in everything from the housing and job markets to the voting booth and criminal justice system. To add insult to injury, they were then blamed if they didn’t enthusiastically support the system. They were blamed if they did not have the same success as whites. They were blamed if they resorted to crime to make ends meet.
While Jim Crow laws are now off the books, many have seen similar patterns of systemic oppression along racial lines still in American society, especially in the criminal justice system.
Here is What Should Have Happened
A wound needs to be healed. It cannot be ignored. You can try to sweep it under the rug only to discover that many years later it's all still there waiting to be addressed.
All America had to do was attempt a similar kind of reconciliation that it did between white Americans and apply that also to black Americans. We already recognized the value of reconstruction. We knew it would save us many years of struggle and anguish. We just didn't apply it across the board.
Once America realized the evils of slavery and decided to end it, it should have gone to great lengths to incorporate black folks into mainstream society. Ending the sin of slavery was only the first step--a big step, but also the bare minimum. The next step is doing the penance to correct the injustices that were done. It means public and sincere apologies. It means humility. It means that American society should have bent over backwards to reconcile with black Americans. It means a robust program of education, housing, job training and mentoring in citizenship, personal finance and anything else that any other citizen would have gotten by being raised in American society. It means being welcomed with a hearty handshake. It also means retribution and restitution. It means kindness and patience. America still needs to do that. No wound can be ignored forever--even a time span of 150 years does not erase the harm that was done or the need for real reconciliation.
The Church can lead the way in this by calling us all to good, old fashioned repentance.
Every effort should have been made to apologize over and over and welcome black folk into mainstream society with great care and patience. The doors to our churches, civic organization, jobs and schools should have been swung wide open. Furthermore, not only should black people have been welcomed, but every effort should have been made to actively reach out to them. While we can all point to some great places where this did in face occur, this never did happen in a widespread, systematic way in American society.
What has happened instead is that American society largely has done the absolute minimum to correct the wrongs it has done, and then it gets pretty darn angry when anyone complains that it should do more. As a result, many in the black community continue to feel like second-class citizens, and there is quite a bit of evidence to support this.
Some will say that what I'm suggesting amounts to coddling. People should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, right? Black Americans largely have done that, but that isn't the point. This isn't about judging the achievements of the black community. This is about calling American society in general to task, and by that I mean mostly white America. It's simple: If you have wronged someone, you have to attempt to correct the wrongs you have done. That's basic morality. We learn it in Kindergarten and in Sunday School. No one can ever correct several hundred years of enslaving an entire people, but every effort must be done to do what can be done. Instead, we see many white Americans resisting and fighting any attempt to address this. White American has dragged its feet long enough on this. It's time for a real reconciliation and a real reconstruction.
The literal and proverbial gates to the plantation swung open. Black people walked out into a void with very little preparation, incredible wounds and very little support from mainstream society. That is not how it should have happened. Even worse, new forms of control and oppression replaced the former plantation gates of slavery, many of which continue to this day. What a terrible way to treat a group of people who had been so openly and systematically wronged. Even 150 years later, full reconciliation, full restitution and full reconstruction still hang out of reach while America wallows in the filth of a sin it refuses to confess and a wrong it refuses to right.