White Americans need an education in slavery

Opinion: Columns

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By John Hubbuch

Most white people don't like to talk about race. Their white guilt and fear of being called a racist discourages any serious discussion, especially with African Americans. Even in Oak Park.

Most white people do have opinions about race. They feel bad that blacks lag behind whites in most socio-economic indexes, but feel good that things seem to be getting somewhat better. However, there is an undercurrent thought that maybe African Americans should somehow try harder to improve their situation. After all, the law of the land has prohibited discrimination for decades. In addition, there are many social programs that benefit black Americans. Lots of money and energy has been expended to help African Americans for a long time, and yet they still lag the population as a whole. Why is this?

The answer is slavery. No other immigrant group came to this continent as slaves. Beginning in 1619 and continuing until 1863, millions of Africans were imported to these shores as commodities to be bought and sold. A vast legal, social and economic infrastructure was created to preserve and maintain the right of one man to own another.

This awful history is powerfully brought home in the film 12 Years A Slave, the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold as a slave until his release 12 years later. He's a decent man who endures unspeakable treatment by brutal slave traders and masters. At one level, the movie is Mr. Northup's story. His ultimate reunion with his family is a teary relief, but this is not a feel-good movie about white people helping black people. 12 Years A Slave is nothing like Lincoln or Amistad.

It is a journey into the nightmare dungeon of slavery. It forces us to confront exactly what slavery was. There is a scene in which Mr. Northup is suspended with a noose around his neck and his arms tied behind his back. His toes barely touch the ground as he seeks a tentative purchase to avoid hanging. The other slaves and the masters go about their daily tasks while this good and decent man just hangs there — the perfect metaphor for the life of a slave.

The movie indicts the whole ecosystem of this monstrous institution. It is only a short mental step to the realization that the African-American experience has been and continues to be negatively impacted by the legacy of slavery. The achievement gap, absent fathers, gangs, gender roles, rap music, speech, art — everything continues to be impacted by the stain of slavery.

Anyone interested in understanding race and racism in this country must learn about slavery and its continuing pernicious influence on our country. Going to see 12 Years A Slave would be a good place to start your education.

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