When, in an interview on the June 16 edition of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, the would-be-funny-except-he-might-president Donald Trump said,”… if you are an African-American youth right now, you’re in worse shape than you practically ever were in the history of this country,” I was offended but not totally sure why. Of course, Trump offends me by breathing. And I kind of forgot about the comment considering what happened the day after in Charleston.
But then came the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage and the dissents, the most remarkable from Justice Thomas: “Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved.”
Clarence Thomas has lost his damn mind.
Since his side lost, I would be inclined to ignore the statement, to write it off as ‘Oh, you mad?’ But as the Confederate flag arguments are teaching us, you can lose the war and still win some battles. Clarence Thomas, Donald Trump and their ilk are doing just that. The battle they’re winning? Convincing a whole lot of people – primarily White, but some Black – that slavery wasn’t all that bad.
Thomas just came out and said it. I’m with Larry Wilmore: “Do you even know what slavery is? Slavery is the complete stripping of humanity and dignity! That’s the point of slavery!”
Trump, on the other hand, did a down low downplay. I think it’s safe to say — bullseye on their backs, educational inequity and systemized racism notwithstanding — African American youth caught a hell of a lot more hell in slavery than they’re catching now.
Acknowledging this does not preclude the need to fix today’s problems. Indeed, acknowledging the extent of the damage done by slavery is the first step in trying to fix those problems.
And then there’s Karen Cooper, a Black woman from Virginia who loves the Confederate flag and says slavery was a choice. Death was the alternative. Yes, she really did say that.
I understand the temptation to pretend slavery wasn’t that bad. Well, I understand the attraction of that delusion for many White people. It assuages guilt, relieves responsibility and palliates privilege. It’s all about self-preservation.
I have a harder time understanding Black poster children for racism like Thomas and Cooper. While they’re living with just a different flavor of delusion, for them it’s all about self-hatred. Sadly, we have slavery to blame for that. It’s one big, disturbing psychological circle.
Contrary to all-too-popular belief, slavery was not the good old days. There were no happy go-lucky spiritual-singing darkies. Mammy did not find fulfillment in birthing and then nursing missus’ babies while her own children were ragged and hungry — if she knew where her own children were. Want to know the truth about slavery? Listen to what the people who lived it have to say in the WPA slave narratives. Read one of the many books written by slaves and by historians who have studied the ‘peculiar institution.’ Check out chapters I and II of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself to understand how, even during slavery, there existed the mythical slave happily whistling while he or she chopped cotton or Julia-child happily prepared meals in the kitchen. And see how he slaps that myth in the face with first-hand accounts of the real pain, humiliation, and brutality of slavery. Because despite narratives from former slaves who liked things the way they were (racist bedtime stories), there’s a lot more evidence to the contrary.
Do the research. Then stop rolling your eyes, sighing and wishing we’d just get over it already. Some things you can’t get over – especially when you’re still feeling the effects. So, Black people can’t just shut up about slavery. White and Black people shouldn’t try to pretend it didn’t happen or at least not the way it did. It’s all about insisting on inconvenient truth, about really understanding our history. If we don’t, while we may not actually repeat it, we are proving that we can perpetuate it.