The color line

In 1903, the black intellectual W.E.B. du Bois wrote in his book "The Souls of Black Folk," "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line."

More prescient than he might have wished, the color line is still distinct at the dawn of the 21st century. Yet its intricacies are better understood and layers of denial have been scraped away.

That progress, in part, is about who gets to tell whose history. Until the last quarter century, America's history books reflected the prevailing political currents. Slavery and the black experience were distilled and packaged for easy consumption.

But the storytellers have become more diverse. And a new readiness to confront critical detail has born striking results: Columbus is no longer the towering icon of the New World; the relationship of Thomas Jefferson, the father of the Constitution, to his own slaves is under increased scrutiny; even Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation has lost some of its humanitarian luster as expediency proved to be a greater motivator.

For decades, Colonial Williamsburg has been a living history site of the early American experience that took a "lily white" approach to that period. Gail Chaddock's story (right) explores a new exhibit that spares visitors none of the more brutal elements of the slave era, but also shows the resilience and tenacity of those enslaved.

These complexities, the institutionalization of racism, and slavery's long-term effects are all there to examine and discuss. The new realities are stirring thought on both sides of the color line.

But perhaps as pertinent is that what was once black history is now being embraced as a fundamental part of American history. And while the explanations may no longer be simple, they represent a truer basis for healing.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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