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Having The Slavery Talk: Do We Really Have To Go There?


White people cheered the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Black people cheered the acquittal of O.J. Simpson. The case can be made that this is just wrong in both those instances. But all things being equal…they’re not. 

This argument shares space with the idea that black people are racist. If white people can be racist, so can black people. All things being equal – they’re not. 

Well, what about the idea that if black people can call each other the “n” word, so can white people. All things being equal – you got it. 

Would that all things were created equal. When we hear the words from the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal” most people in 2013 understand that that referred to white propertied men. People today know that Thomas Jefferson had slaves, black people were considered 3/5 of a human, essentially beasts of burden and property, Native Americans were hunted and slaughtered, and white women were considered too inferior to vote. 

Although God may have created us equal, white male supremacy rewrote the script. 

The brilliance of the conservative-Tea Party-“don’t tread on me” talking points takes advantage of the historical amnesia from which Latte-chugging, upwardly mobile and getting derailed Americans suffer. In matters of race in American life, we pretend that everybody heard the gunshot coming out of the gate to sprint for the American dream, and we were all crouched at the same starting line. I submit that not only were we not all at the same starting line, black people never even heard the gun go off. We weren’t even invited to the race. We were barely considered human and we were always considered criminal, whether it was stealing a biscuit from the massa’s table, or a chicken to feed a starving family from his farm. 

I know at this point many are signing off, not willing to be raked over the coals of slavery one more Al Sharpton time. That’s okay. But if we are going to have a frank discussion on race after the Trayvon Martin shooting and subsequent acquittal of his murderer, the issue of slavery just might come up. 

The notion of the scary, criminalized black man who couldn’t walk with impunity in white people’s neighborhoods did not begin with Trayvon Martin. It didn’t begin with young Emett Till pulverized by grown white men for whistling at a white woman. It went before scary black Nat Turner left the plantation and dared to defend himself against slavery. I cannot think of a time that the white man was not afraid of this proud African man as he terrorized him and his family in unspeakable ways to bend his mind and body into submission. When he stole, not only his freedom, but his right to be a member of the human race. 

The George Zimmerman verdict is so painful to many Americans, particularly people of color, because somehow it takes us back to a time where no one wants to go. Somehow the system stole the humanity of this black boy when they criminalized him and put him on trial for victimizing George Zimmerman. We can barely utter the shame of it all. It takes our breath away. 

In the 19th century the emancipation proclamation spawned the creation of a criminal justice system designed to arrest black men and sell their labor for profit. When black men could no longer be chattel, they were created criminals. Douglas Blackmon, a white man, wrote a telling book on it entitled Slavery by Another Name. 

Is the long reach of America’s criminal past beginning to sound a bit like America’s unjust present? 

The O.J. verdict, tragic though those murders were, did not carry this kind of pain. The results did not deny anyone’s personhood, did not reflect this untenable history, It was not the same tragedy of the Martin trial. 

And then there is the “n” word that, if uttered by a white person, can end a career. That’s how powerful it is. The good news is, that’s how far we’ve come. But don’t head for the shredder to rid us of the past, yet. 

Tarantino’s Django allowed whites to laugh at the bloody reality of slavery because, hey, it’s Tarantino. That was palatable. We heard the “n” word countless times, and people counted. But should white people use it? 

The “n” word came out of the blood of our ancestors and the theft of humanity, a theft that was state sponsored. The “n” word was created by white people to mask that theft, so black people could internalize their own oppression. And we did. The ugly stain of that word and all it represents has never been washed away. No amount of white kids with black head-rags and baggy pants can take it away. No amount of Tim Wise liberals, or Occupy progressives, or well-meaning media Rachel Maddows can help us escape our history. No Black History Month or Barack Obama can get rid of it. And that monstrous stain on America seeped through in the Zimmerman trial for all the world to see. Many are aghast, not sure of what they’re looking at. 

But we don’t want to talk about slavery. 

And finally, comes the question can black people be racist. I submit that no matter how much anybody might hate white people, they can’t depress their employment numbers, disproportionately send them to death row, or stalk their l7-year old child, murder him, and then claim self-defense. 

Let’s take the muzzle off black people, criticized for being racist because racism exists and they want to talk about it. Let’s have “the talk” not in the vacuum of that Sanford courtroom, but in the very harsh light of our American racial legacy. I am quite confident that the “n” word won’t come up, but be prepared for the “s” word (slavery) to be raised. It’s the only thing that can wash us clean. 

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