8/24/16: slavery and the feel-good myth

The sad truth is that there’s nothing any of us can do at this point to apologize, atone, or make amends for the centuries-long use of slavery in this country. There’s no way to wash away the invisible privilege or the benefits we unknowingly gained as children given countless opportunities, or which we may continue to accrue in our chosen professions. We can, however, step back from the increasingly obvious lie we tell ourselves, which is that if we’d been alive back then, we’d automatically have helped, even though Kathryn Schulz, writing for The New Yorker‘s August 22, 2016 issue, makes it clear that most Northerners did not:

Several ostensibly free states, including Illinois and Indiana, [passed] laws that prohibited free blacks from settling inside their borders. On the eve of the Civil War, the mayor of New York proposed that the city secede from the Union to protect its economic relationship with the South.

We should not be surprised, then, that most people who slipped the bonds of slavery did not look north. In fact, despite its popularity today, the Underground Railroad was perhaps the least popular way for slaves to seek their freedom.

What we can and should do, then, is to be honest about our past, and to ensure that we do not repeat these mistakes–refusing to do the right, but difficult thing, out of economic fear–in our modern day. We should be cautious, too, as Schulz writes, that in our heroic mythologizing of slavery, we do not “minimize over-all white responsibility” by “displacing” the viciousness of these times onto slave-catchers, as opposed to the culture and all those implicit in it. (Consider the way in which Django Unchained allows us to hate DiCaprio’s character just a little bit less when he stands beside Jackson’s.)

It is admirable to want to seek out “the best parts of ourselves and [to] articulate our finest vision of our nation.” But we should not do so by ignoring all of our ugliness, or by doing plastic surgery on our histories (i.e., revisionism). Those who quibble with the racial “authenticity” of Hamilton and ignore the forward-looking message miss the very point of what’s to be gained from our past. So let us read beyond the myths, or at least focus on how to ensure that their moral lessons continue to live today.

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