Slavery and the State of Denial

By Muwakkil, Salim | In These Times, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Slavery and the State of Denial


Muwakkil, Salim, In These Times


ON FEB. 24, Virginia's state assembly voted unanimously to express "profound regret" for the states role in slavery. Legislators assembled in the former capital of the Confederacy to express regret for sanctioning "the most horrendous of all depredations of human rights and violations of our founding ideals in our nation's history." The action could mark a significant shift in public opinion.

Virginia has become the nation's first state to step away from the state of denial.

The last such effort was in 2000, when former Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) proposed a similar bill in Congress. Hall was repeating a failed effort mounted in 1997. Both efforts were greeted with derision and the legislation died an ignoble death.

The action of Virginia's legislators comes as the state is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, where the first enslaved Africans arrived in 1619. The resolution has sparked discussion about similar bills in Maryland, Missouri and Georgia. In Congress, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) has introduced a resolution apologizing to African-Americans for "the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow." Cohen is a freshman who represents a predominantly black district in Memphis.

Virginia's action also comes at a time when the country is engrossed in other discussions about slavery. One day after the state's apology, a genealogical group released a finding that Coleman Sharpton, the great-grandfather of the civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton, was owned by the forebears of the late segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). This connection, reported in the New York Daily News, shocked Sharpton. "I couldn't describe to you the emotions I have had ... everything from anger to outrage to reflection to some pride and glory," he said at a press conference. "You think about the distance that you've come, you think about how brutal it was, you think about how life must have been life for him. And then you start wondering whether or not he would be proud or disappointed in what we have done."

Sharpton was disturbed by the specificity of the knowledge, which made slavery less abstract and more personal. For most Americans, slavery is a vague historical abstraction, distanced and obscured by a veil of cultural denial.

Guilt is the primary reason white Americans prefer to look away from the abomination of race-based slavery that laid the foundation for this nation's wealth and implanted enduring notions of white supremacy. Some African-Americans have been shamed into denial as well, but many desperately seek links to their lost heritage. …

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