Escaping slavery: It still haunts us, 150 years after emancipation

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America has slavery on the brain these days.

There were the recent releases of the movies "Lincoln" (which I found enlightening and enjoyable) and "Django Unchained" (which I found a profound love story with an orgy of excess and muddled morality). I guess my preferences reflect a penchant for subtlety.

Sometimes a little bit of an unsettling thing goes a long way, and a lot goes too far. Aside from its gratuitous goriness, "Django Unchained" reportedly used the N-word more than 100 times. "Lincoln" used it only a handful. I don't know exactly where my threshold is, but I think it's well shy of the century mark.

Then there was this week the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the most important documents in this country's archives.

All of this has caused me to think about the long shadow of slavery, the legacy of that most grievous enterprise and the ways in which that poison tree continues to bear fruit.

To be sure, America has moved light-years forward from the days of slavery. But the idea that progress toward racial harmony would be steady and continuous is fraying. And the pillars of the institution -- the fundamental devaluation of dark skin and strained justifications for the unconscionable -- have proved surprisingly resilient.

For instance, in October, The Arkansas Times reported that Jon Hubbard, a Republican state representative, wrote in a 2009 self-published book that "the institution of slavery that the black race has long believed to be an abomination upon its people may actually have been a blessing in disguise." His misguided point was that for all the horrors of slavery, blacks were better off in America than in Africa.

This was a prevailing, ethically empty justification for American slavery when it was legal.

Robert E. Lee wrote in 1856: "The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race and will prepare them, I hope, for better things."

In a famous 1837 speech on the Senate floor, John C. Calhoun declared: "I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good -- a positive good."

Lee was later appointed commander of the armies of the South. Calhoun became secretary of state. But in November, Mr. Hubbard lost his seat; I guess that's progress.

Still, the persistence of such a ridiculous argument does not sit well with me. And we should all be unsettled by the tendency of some people to romanticize and empathize with the Confederacy.

A Pew Research Center poll released in April 2011 found that most Southern whites think it's appropriate for modern-day politicians to praise Confederate leaders, the only demographic to believe that.

A CNN poll also released that month found that nearly four in 10 white Southerners sympathize more with the Confederacy than with the Union.

What is perhaps more problematic is that negative attitudes about blacks are increasing. According to an October survey by The Associated Press: "In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent during the last presidential election."

Not progress.

In fact, it feels as though slavery as an analogy has become subversively chic. Herman Cain, running as a Republican presidential candidate, built an entire campaign around this not-so-coded language, saying that he had left "the Democrat plantation," calling blacks "brainwashed" and arguing, "I don't believe racism in this country today holds anybody back in a big way."

As the best-selling author Michelle Alexander pointed out in her sensational 2010 book "The New Jim Crow," various factors, including the methodical mass incarceration of black men, has led to the disintegration of the black family, the disenfranchisement of millions of people and a new and very real era of American oppression.

As Ms. Alexander told me Friday: "Today there are more African-American adults under correctional control -- in prison or jail, on probation or parole -- than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began."

Definitely not progress.

opinion_commentary

Charles M. Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.


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