In a heated but friendly debate about immigration policy among my guests at a 4th of July dinner, the issue of slavery came up. This is normal. Slavery was the “immigrant experience” for generations of blacks in eighteenth and nineteenth century America.
I had only one white guest on this particular afternoon and it was her first visit to my home. I should have noticed that she grew quieter as the issue of the Dream Act morphed into a brief discussion of the enslavement of Blacks and then back to the present day issues of U.S. policy toward nearly 12 million illegal immigrants.
I was a bad host. Instead of offering my guest another beverage, I should have offered her the opportunity to share her feelings about our discussion. What I learned later is this guest was uncomfortable with the comments about slavery telling the person who escorted her to my home: “why can’t black people just get over slavery.”
I don’t take offense to the question. Almost 150 years since the abolishment of slavery in America, why is there still conversation about the experience and impact of slavery? I would have welcomed that question from my guest. Hopefully, she’ll come again and feel freer to express her opinions. But, here is how I would answer.
Slavery, then and now, is an issue causing shame and anger for Black people. Just Google the images of slavery and they will make you cringe. Slavery is the lowest point in the history of Blacks in this country and I believe a moral low point in the history of our country. So much so, that we haven’t talked about it enough. The national conversation might have been simpler to have (albeit not easier) during and after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to our Constitution (abolition of slavery) but the national conversation quickly turned to Reconstruction and the political and legal rights of newly freed slaves rather than the neuroses resulting from slavery.
If we had known of it in the late nineteenth century, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder would have been the diagnosis of the nearly four million blacks freed from slave labor. But instead of the therapeutic value of remembering, discussing and grieving, newly freed slaves were faced with new kinds of subjugation guided by states rights and Jim Crow laws.
As a country, we never paused to talk about the pain and sacrifice of our Civil War nor the new unity we sought in its wake. We never talked about a century of dehumanization of a group of people snatched from their lives and forced into a system in which they had no control and no exit except death. We didn’t even stop to reflect on the resilience, intelligence and courage it took to survive and adapt to a new existence and culture in a foreign land.
Finally in the twentieth century, after another century of segregation and prejudice, Blacks effectively took action to gain power and respect. There was a movement toward full civil rights; a month-long celebration of the innovation and contributions of Black Americans; and the embrace of Black culture in America. But, still little conversation about slavery and the slow and painful recovery from its horrors.
So, if my white guest had asked me: ‘Why can’t Black people get over slavery?’ My answer would be something like this: When white Americans talk about immigration history, Ellis Island comes up. When Black Americans discuss immigration, slavery is going to be invoked. I would have added one more thing:
“Like any painful human experience, it takes the time it takes to get over it and we need to keep talking about slavery until we get it out of our system.”