Speaking of Slavery: The Last Taboo

By , N.C.

When the Works Progress Administration's Federal Writers' Project sent writers South to interview ex-slaves in the 1930s, Sarah Debro of North Carolina confessed, "My folks don't want me to talk about slavery. They's shame [African-Americans] ever was slaves."

If Debro were alive today, she might be surprised to find that many Americans are still uncomfortable talking about slavery. Today, 133 years after emancipation, the subject of slavery remains taboo. It can stir bitter emotions and provoke controversy. Understandably, many would rather not dredge up that embarrassing chapter of history.

Some museums have learned that lesson the hard way. In Washington, the Library of Congress bowed to pressure from black employees and dismantled the exhibit "Back of the Big House: The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation" just hours before its scheduled opening. Similarly, Discovery Place, a children's museum in Charlotte, N.C., nixed an exhibit of artifacts from a sunken slave ship when detractors said it negatively reflected black history.

Recommended: Harriet Beecher Stowe: 10 memorable quotes on her birthday

These cancellations were the public's loss. To ignore slavery as part of our history is to deny the humanity of those who endured the brutal oppression.

Words do not suffice to convey the cruelty of human bondage. Tom Feelings's magnum opus, "Middle Passage," is notable not only for its haunting illustrations but for the absence of text. Narrative was omitted, Feelings explained, because slavery stripped Africans of their native tongues, and the Atlantic voyage's horrors were unspeakable.

But we must find words, and heed those who speak them, if we ever hope to reckon with slavery.

After all, slavery's legacy lingers in the form of racism. Consider the fact that conservative televangelist John Hagee of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio promoted a student fund-raiser as a "slave auction." The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., is marking its centennial with a Confederate Ball.

How, then, to reconcile our painful past? Demanding reparations from the government or from slaveholders' descendants is one approach. Another is a proposal by the National Juneteenth Lineage Conference to establish a national Juneteenth holiday. It would mark the date - June 19, 1865 - when the last slaves were freed in the United States.

But African-Americans don't have to wait for anyone to grant us permission to ponder and celebrate our past. We need not forgive or forget slavery. But we do need to bear witness, whether folks want to listen or not. Discussing slavery will only strengthen our resolve to guard precious, hard-won freedoms.

Even if we think we already know enough about slavery, we must pass that knowledge to the next generation. Teachers already have a full plate, and textbooks often whitewash history. Children are our best, and perhaps only, hope for bridging the racial divide. But before they can span the widening gulf, they must understand the forces that created it.

Perhaps we can learn from how other nations and ethnic groups grapple with past evils. Jewish congregations, for example, observe Yom Ha-Shoah, a day of remembrance for the Holocaust, Nazi Germany's extermination of 10 to 11 million people - including 6 million Jews - during World War II. In addition, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum preserves the memory of those who perished. Located in Washington, the $168 million facility attracts thousands of visitors annually.

In contrast, a handful of visitors trickle through America's Black Holocaust Museum, a shoestring operation run by James Cameron, an octogenarian who was nearly lynched as a teen. Housed in an old gymnasium in Milwaukee, the museum's collection exposes violent injustices suffered by African-Americans at the hands of Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan, and slaveholders.

Halfway around the globe, South Africa recently convened a Truth Commission to document apartheid's atrocities. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel laureate, heads the commission. "For this country to heal," he proclaimed, "the truth must come out about who did what to whom and why."

The same could be said of the United States.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

eZ debug

Clear cache:

Quick settings:

Timing: Jul 09 2014 06:57:42
Script start
Timing: Jul 09 2014 06:57:42
Module start 'content'
Timing: Jul 09 2014 06:57:42
Module end 'content'
Timing: Jul 09 2014 06:57:42
Before parse_includes
Strict: PHP: E_STRICT Jul 09 2014 06:57:42
Non-static method MugoViewExtras::get_view_extras() should not be called statically, assuming $this from incompatible context in /var/www/www.csmonitor.com/extension/mugo_view_extras/autoloads/template_operators.php on line 37
Warning: eZTemplate:def @ extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/override/templates/extra/archive.tpl:21[1] Jul 09 2014 06:57:42
Variable 'view_extra_node' is already defined.
Timing: Jul 09 2014 06:57:42
After parse_includes
Timing: Jul 09 2014 06:57:42
End

Timing points:

CheckpointElapsedRel. ElapsedMemoryRel. Memory
Script start 0.0000 sec0.0191 sec 1,285.5313 KB1,162.1250 KB
Module start 'content' 0.0191 sec0.0044 sec 2,447.6563 KB703.6719 KB
Module end 'content' 0.0235 sec0.0328 sec 3,151.3281 KB2,701.9766 KB
Before parse_includes 0.0564 sec0.0852 sec 5,853.3047 KB448.3906 KB
After parse_includes 0.1415 sec0.0010 sec 6,301.6953 KB-161.0547 KB
End 0.1425 sec  6,140.6406 KB 
Total runtime:0.3550 sec
Peak memory usage:6,562.8047 KB

Time accumulators:

 Accumulator Elapsed Percent Count Average
ini_load
Load cache0.0059 sec1.6409%310.0002 sec
Mysql Total
Mysqli_queries0.2804 sec78.3832%540.0052 sec
Looping result0.0016 sec0.4516%530.0000 sec
Template Total0.1076 sec 30.1% 6 0.0179 sec
Template load0.0035 sec0.9723%60.0006 sec
Template processing0.1055 sec29.4782%60.0176 sec
override
Cache load0.0016 sec0.4551%60.0003 sec
states
state_id_array0.0069 sec1.9162%50.0014 sec
state_identifier_array0.0067 sec1.8750%50.0013 sec
General
String conversion0.0000 sec0.0065%30.0000 sec
dbfile0.0004 sec0.1042%180.0000 sec
View Extra building0.0309 sec8.6273%20.0154 sec
Total script time:0.3577 sec

CSS/JS files loaded with "ezjscPacker" during request:

CacheTypePacklevelSourceFiles
01a980f93dc967c6e39d52a11ae2108b_1404899611_all.cssCSS3extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/stylesheets/normalize.css
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/stylesheets/html5b.css
design/standard/stylesheets/debug.css
extension/ezwt/design/standard/stylesheets/websitetoolbar.css
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/stylesheets/jquery-ui-1.10.3.custom.min.css
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/stylesheets/desktop.css
ede0a88fd146f1a095d27fb22227d0e5_1398846822.jsJS2extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/modernizr.js
extension/csm_base/design/standard/javascript/jquery-1.10.2.min.js
1650da1ba852ac5f9af81af07e8fa105_1404899611.jsJS2extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/jquery-ui-1.10.4.min.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/json2.js
extension/csm_base/design/standard/javascript/jquery.cookie.min.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/jquery.mobile.custom.min.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/plugins/jquery.arthole.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/plugins/jquery.sticky.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/plugins/jquery.csmstory.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/plugins/jquery.right_column.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/plugins/jquery.csmstory_editorspickdialog.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/plugins/jquery.sailthru_signup.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/plugins/jquery.jcarousel.min.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/plugins/jquery.history.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/plugins/jquery.mainNav.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/plugins/jquery.gallery.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/plugins/jquery.staffdialog.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/jQuery.rollChildren.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/pubService_extended.js
extension/csm_base/design/standard/javascript/csm/csmNew.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/jquery.quiz.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/jquery.spectrumQuiz.js
extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/javascript/global.js

Templates used to render the page:

UsageRequested templateTemplateTemplate loadedEditOverride
1pagelayout.tpl<No override>extension/csm_base/design/csm_design/templates/pagelayout.tplEdit templateOverride template
1modules/mugo_view_extras/extra_cached.tpl<No override>extension/mugo_view_extras/design/standard/templates/modules/mugo_view_extras/extra_cached.tplEdit templateOverride template
1setup/debug_toolbar.tpl<No override>design/standard/templates/setup/debug_toolbar.tplEdit templateOverride template
 Number of times templates used: 3
 Number of unique templates used: 3
 Time used to render template usage: 0.0002 secs