Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Notes on Historical Memory: "The point isn’t that American slavery is the exact moral or material equivalent of the Holocaust..."

The point isn’t that American slavery is the exact moral or material equivalent of the Holocaust, but that our country’s “original sin” has not been fully, culturally processed.
A man with a wide smile appeared next to our table, seemingly out of nowhere, and introduced himself as the restaurant’s manager. We chatted about the proper pronunciation of “crawfish,” and the differences between the gumbos made on the bayou and in New Orleans, and when the subject turned to the Cabin, I asked him how it felt to run a place that used to house slaves.
“It’s history, and that’s all there is to it,” he said. “It’s not something we dwell on, or push out there for people to see. It is a touchy subject. We just want people to have a nice time when they come here, and to enjoy the food and the history. This is a place where everybody feels welcome."
Salon has a provocative and wonderful feature by Peter Birkenhead about the tapestry that is historical memory, the slave-holding South, and contemporary conservatism. We have spent a good amount of time this past year exploring these issues, and have worked though such topics as role-playing games as a means to "explore" chattel slavery historical tourism and slave cabins,black Confederate soldier.
Why We Still Can't Talk About Slavery seems like a fitting complement to a year-long conversation.
In all, it would seem that many of us have no use for such a flattening of history:
Later that day, at Destrehan, a former sugar plantation a few miles down, the guide neglected to mention that it was the site of the largest slave revolt in American history.
When I asked Angela da Silva, a professor of black history at Lindenwood University, and owner of the St. Louis-based National Black Tourism Network, for her thoughts, she said, “Jesus coming down off the cross couldn’t get me to stay in some gentrified slave cabin with a jacuzzi in it. The misery and pain that happened in those cabins … This is about shame.
People who own these places want the history to go away. But it won’t go away. And until we as black people insist on the story being told, no one has any incentive to change their business model.”
As Birkenhead beautifully details, the rise of the New Right and the Tea Party, the Republican Party's fetish for the Confederacy, its Lost Cause ideology, and embrace of States' Rights and nullification have brought questions of historical memory to the forefront of the public discourse during the 2012 presidential primary season.
Moreover, the literal white washing of the history of a traitorous Confederacy, what was a military state dedicated to racial tyranny, and a willful lie about the benevolence of whiteness, loom large in the Conservative political imagination. Those dreams are amplified and made more imminent when a black man is President of the United States, because for the populist conservative, neo-Confederate crowd, nothing could be more of an abomination.
For Tea Party GOP conservatives, the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism is inexorably tied to a Gone With the Wind, Redemption, race and reunion narrative. This tale has no use for such "inconveniences" as chattel slavery, white supremacy, the genocide of indigenous people, and racial pogroms.
The Reconstruction-era South didn't invent dishonesty, but its response to America's defining trauma has become a foundational lie, supporting an ever-growing edifice of false history. It’s a lie so big no one will forcefully challenge it, a lie that’s too big to fail. In the sesquicentennial year of the Civil War, the “stars and bars” fly over state capitals, proclamations are issued that honor the Confederacy without mentioning slavery, and commuters drive to work on highways named after white supremacists. And appeals to wounded pride and the lost values of imagined pasts are an everyday part of our political culture.
This should come as no surprise. Adults who dress up in Colonial era period clothing, believe that the Constitution is divinely inspired, and take the metaphor of "a shining city on the hill" as a get out of jail pass for America's shortcomings both at home and abroad, have little use for such facts. Selection bias, Fox News, and an embrace of a fantastical view of political and social reality, protects the Tea Party GOP faithful from any experience of cognitive dissonance.
Birkenhead concludes Why We Still Can't Talk About Slavery with a powerful point. He is spot on in many regards. But, Birkenhead commits a common error, where even in offering a robust critique of the lie that is the "popular" embrace of a neutered and "harmless" Confederacy--where millions of people were killed, tortured, raped, torn from family and kin, reduced to items in an inventory, or property to be taxed on a ledger--he uses the "universal I," a common sense judgement of who "we" actually are:
If America is a family, it’s a family that has tacitly agreed to never speak again — not with much honesty, anyway — about the terrible things that went on in its divided house. Slavery has been taught, it has been written about. There can’t be many subjects that rival it as an academic ink-guzzler. But the culture has not digested slavery in a meaningful way, hasn't absorbed it the way it has World War II or the Kennedy assassination. We don't feel the connections to it in our bones.
It’s hard enough these days to connect with what happened 15 minutes ago, let alone 15 decades, given the endless layers of “classic,” “heirloom,” “traditional” “collectible,” “old school” comfort we’re swaddled in. But isn’t it the least we could do? What is the willful forgetting of slavery if not the coverup of a crime, an abdication of responsibility to its victims and to ourselves?
Who is this "we" that do not feel the connections to slavery in our bones? Why must United States history, and the idea of shared (and manufactured) community, almost by definition exclude black Americans? I know that I feel slavery in my bones and spirit. Our struggle and triumph in the face of almost unimaginable White barbarism is a legacy to be honored. And when I think of the fact that my grandmother's grandmother was likely born a slave, the connection to "the peculiar institution" is pretty deep in my blood and soul.
In all, America wants to forget on its own terms, because to fully acknowledge the centuries of chattel slavery in this country, and almost a century of Jim and Jane Crow, may actually require an acknowledgement of debts due. As I have long suggested, it is not the financial or monetary compensation for harm done to black Americans both in the past, and to the present by Whites and the Racial State, that is necessarily the deal breaker. No, it is the acknowledgement of wrong doing, and the simple words "I am sorry, we were wrong," that are at the root of why reparations are a non-starter in the United States.
An apology doesn't "cost" a thing, but for Whiteness (and many White people), it seems to be prohibitively expensive.
Because we all know that the sins of the father (or mother) are never passed down to the son or the daughter. Ironically, the privileges of whiteness, materially, economically, psychically, and politically, can be accrued with interest (and with no accountability at all) for centuries without end.
That is one hell of a bargain.


fred c said...

I think that a big part of this issue is tied up in the reality of the "we," as you suggest, and also the reality of the "I."

Regarding the "I," White's who are overly identified with "I" can absolve themselves from responsibility for Slavery. "My family never owned slaves," or even better, "my family didn't even arrive in America until after slavery." "I bear no animosity towards minorities, and I can offer anecdotal evidence." This is illusory logic, because the "I" is a basic misconception, better thought of as the myth of individuality.

A fit analogy is driving on the public roads. Because people are alone in their car, and in full control of their own car, they tend to view driving as a solitary activity, an individual activity. But it's not, is it? It's a group activity, all of the drivers act together, with common, unspoken goals of safety and efficiency, creating patterns and fitting into them.

No one stands alone in life either. We find our personal reality in groups, many groups simultaneously, each of us. Those "privileges of whiteness," for instance, buy one the membership in the group that created them and enjoys them.

White supremacy brings not only great psychic comfort, but also real-world benefits to lots of people, and it will therefore be very difficult to dislodge. Dislodge it we must, though, along with all of the other manifestations of racial or cultural supremacy in our new shared, global world.

Plane Ideas said...


Super post...

I often get ruffles from my jewish comrades whenever I invoke the term holocaust in discussions about slavery in America..

My jewish friends get angry and upset and thenseek to engage in a body count depravity competition with me..

Of course I ignore it because in their hearts of hearts...They know I am right..

Oh Crap said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Oh Crap said...

I've been laughing at Turkey again this week.

It's bad enough that they let those apartheid flotillas to be launched from Cypress, of all places, on the pretext of "human rights" in some other place.

Oh, please. The Russians used to ask us "why do you beat the blacks" for a reason.

In relation to Chauncey's post on just who's allowed to say what, they're now barking at France with economic threats [as they've been at everyone else in earshot for the past few decades] who dare utter those three syllables, "genocide", in relation to what the Ottoman government did to Armenians for the better part of a decade, as it grasped at the last of its straws.

[And yes, in some circles, it is discussed as specifically in terms of a Holocaust.]

So France votes to pass it's own domestic law recognizing twenty years of calculated massacres and ethnic cleansing as "genocide", and Turkey pulls a classic sandbox-style "I know u r but whut am I" move.

It's "racist", and pandering, to discuss such things that might hurt the Turkish government's feelings.

How dare you victimize me by making me look bad for rather legendarily victimizing others! SHUT UP!!

Sounds familiar. Very familiar.

fred c said...


The term "holocaust" is available to English speakers to describe any intentional infliction of great destruction on a particularly identified group of people. Applied as "THE Holocaust," it refers to what happened to the Jews in the 'Forties. For the Jews to claim unique horror is unseemly though, there's plenty to go around.

But words are funny that way, they change over time. In the 'Fifties, it was still possible for the Flintstones to "have a gay old time." Nobody would write the song that way now.

Whatever we might call it though, a holocaust is a holocaust is a holocaust. What happened to the Jews certainly qualifies, but what happened to Blacks in America certainly qualifies as well, and there are lots of other clear examples (some very close to us in time). All of those arguments about "my holocaust can kick your holocaust's ass" are misguided.

Another largely unconsidered point is that the holocaust that was perpetrated on Blacks in America was really part of a larger horror: the centuries long rape of Africa by European powers. You want horror? Read about the administration of the Congo by King Leopold's Belgium.

Another extender of the holocaust of Slavery in America? The fact that the residue is still stinking up the place; we're still tracking that dog shit around.

The only "right" side in any of this is wanting it all to stop, and working to make that happen.

DebC said...

Hey everybody and great post cd! I read the Salon piece earlier and asked myself the same question: "What we??"

Anyway, I just wanted to de-lurk so I could tell fred c...Your comments on this post? - "...helpful in the worst way!" indeed ;-)

DebC said...

fred c...I was paraphrasing your paraphrasing of W.C.Fields (remember?)

Abstentus said...

Quote from the post: “It’s not something we dwell on."

Ya think? The racism is still there, and it is deep. Even before I read this, I was updating my blog about Ann Coulter's latest racist screed, bemoaning that unless a GOPer who is sufficiently "right" on immigration, it will be . . . " buenas noches, muchachos," for the GOP.

So ya. They are not dwelling on their collective racist past. Too many at least are too busy living their racist present to give a damn about the past.

Abstentus said...

I meant GOPer "right" on immigration gets elected. Sorry.

Plane Ideas said...


Super talking points..For many white jewish people they seek to segregate themselves from the other victims of inhumanity..It is a twisted cultural posturing to engage in bodycount competitions and trying to censor others from invoking whatever words they seek to employ in dealing with an evil..

I encounter this often from people even within the Black community who seek to censor the word nigger..I reject all manner of censorship when it comes to how I seek to define reality certainly when it comes to how I seek to deal with an evil like racism and historical events like our American domestic holocausts...

Words have power as you noted...

Jud said...

I'm glad to see people talking about this article. I'm even gladder to see that there's a been a yearlong conversation going on here about the issues it raises. My problem with the Birkenhead article is that it makes slavery and white racism look like a Southern problem instead of a national one. He also in effect sugarcoats the Lost Cause--it didn't seek so much to erase the memory of slavery as to convince the rest of the country that the Southern approach to white supremacy was the right one all along. More here.

Oh Crap said...

I was just reading Tedra Osell at Crooked Timber.

Last week, she posted a link to "atrocities throughout history, from the NYT", in reference to the coates article on the civil war. Puts some things, including the Atlantic Slave Trade and conquest of the Americas, in perspective.

Oh Crap said...

Oh and welcome, Jud, to the WARN peanut gallery.

You write:

It's about racism--South and North. From sea to shining sea.

Don't forget the west, too - I can't call myself an "LA writer", but I grew up in Southern California, which has no shortage of confederates and always has. They had to compromiseto enter the union as a free state.

What you perceive in Birkenhead's clutched pearls is a primary MO of liberal whites in this state. You're right, the problem is far deeper than just the south.

Anonymous said...

"point isn’t that American slavery is the exact moral or material equivalent of the Holocaust, but that our country’s “original sin” has not been fully,"

Oh, but it was equivalent to the Holocaust and much worse and it wasn't simply slavery. Blacks had shown at a time that they were capable of transcending the evils of slavery and what happened? They systematically and persistently oppressed them with Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws that were as horrific as the Holoccaust and it lasted a heck of a lot longer, as well. The only difference is no one was keeping a running tally of dead negroes. This country won't face the impact of slavery because the same mentality that drove slavery and justified Jim Crow is still alive and well here and is reinforced daily. I've just begun reading Life Upon These Shores by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and in reading it I come away with, the more things change the more they remain the same. The current mindset and rhetoric is the same that was used then, except that it is now expanded to include Muslims and Spanish immigrants. There is a cartoon with a negro vampire swooping down on terrified whites with Negro Rule written across the expanded wings that immediately reminded me of today's talk of Sharia Law. No, it's the same hateful and conniving mindset that is prominent in this country. It will not allow for recognizing their own actions, or the impact it has had. It will never recognize the role blacks had in shaping this country, the battles they might have lost were it not for blacks. Instead they grumble about blacks getting a special month.

StewartIII said...

NewsBusters| Daily Kos Week in Review: The Hangover

Constructive Feedback said...

[quote]has not been fully, culturally processed.[/quote]


1) What FORM will a "Fully Culturally Processed" discussion about AMERICAN SLAVERY take the form of?

2) AFTERWARD - what changes or concessions will transpire?

3) Most of all - WHAT IF the WHITE FOLKS that you don't like (Conservatives) tell you YES we will discuss it AND THE WHITE FOLKS that you DO LIKE will then have to YIELD THEIR WHITE POSITION for real - as THEIR bastion firewall - the white conservative - is now TAKEN AWAY and now your White progressive friends must go from TALKING ABOUT "What they would do for the Negro IF their WHITE CONSERVATIVE BROTHERS were not so set against it" over to ACTUALLY DOING IT - at their own COST?