Speaking of Slavery: The Last Taboo

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.

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.

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