Does history really matter?

Opinion: Columns

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After I saw 12 Years A Slave, the Academy Award winner for Best Picture, I wrote a column on Nov. 12, titled, "White Americans need an education in slavery." To my surprise, the column elicited far more comments from readers than any column I have ever written.
At last count, there were more than 400 comments, and they came from all over the country. The comments were still coming in February. I was hoping to reach 500, but a recent check revealed this statement: "Wednesday Journal staff have disabled comments on this page." I assume that the "discussion" had gotten out of hand, and the n-word must have reared its ugliness.
 I thought my column was pretty benign. After watching this powerful movie, I was reminded how terrible slavery was and suggested that its pernicious influence impacted race relations up to the present day. Now I did not read all of the mostly negative responses, but like the EPA sampling a cesspool, I did read enough of them to conclude that the negative responses fell into three general categories:
 First, there was the "ahistorical" response. According to these folks, slavery ended in 1863, and now it was time to stop talking about it. That was then. This is now. An understandable response if you were a goldfish, but history does matter — a lot. Ask Jews, Arabs, Native Americans, Irish, Serbs, Africans, residents of the Third World — actually anybody. We are because of who we were. History matters.
 Second, there were a group of responses that I would call "faith-based reality" or perhaps willful ignorance. These suggested that slavery wasn't all that bad, or other immigrant groups had overcome their difficulties, or some blacks owned slaves, or if you work hard you can accomplish anything. These responders reinvent history so as to be compatible with their current world view.
 Third, straight up racism. I've learned from this experiece that there are far more racists than I thought, and I'm not talking about "cross the street because a black man is headed my way late at night" racism, but "black people are inferior to white people" racism, which, of course, was a rationale for maintaining slavery in the antebellum South. This time history repeats itself.
 If I could write the column over, I would have admitted that a movie might not be the best source to learn about slavery. I would have recommended reading Kenneth Stampp's The Peculiar Institution and the work of Stanley Elkins, Eugene Genovese, Herbert Gutman, John Hope Franklin, Lawrence Levine, Leon Litwak and David Brion Davis. I would also have emphasized that the abolition of slavery was largely the result of white abolitionists who worked tirelessly to remove this stain from the fabric of a nation that was founded on the principle that all men are created equal.
At great personal sacrifice, many white people were responsible for ending the institution of slavery. According to Dr. Davis, the abolition of slavery might serve as precedent or model for other acts of moral transcendence. Sometimes morality trumps economics and tradition. Sometimes we flawed humans do something solely because it is the right thing to do. It can be argued that women, gays, citizens with special needs, and others who have suffered discrimination have improved as a result of the precedent created by the abolition of slavery.
 But that is so only if history matters.

Reader Comments

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Speedway from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: March 13th, 2014 9:14 AM

I really liked this article. It was a good summation of the comments except one small group who I think really do get it. I personally will not see the movie but I have downloaded the book as a must read on my list.

Doug Deuchler from Oak Park  

Posted: March 13th, 2014 8:25 AM

I found both the previous article and this follow-up very fascinating. I am really shocked that so many people still come out of the old bag of denial about slavery and white privilege. It just blows my mind when I run into people who say things like, "Yeah, it must have been hell but my great-grandparents had it pretty rough too when they came from Italy [or Poland or wherever], didn't have two nickels, and didn't know the language. Nobody helped them." DUH. It's not the same at all.

lee from oak park  

Posted: March 12th, 2014 12:17 AM

I really enjoyed your article. It's true history "does" matter. If it wasn't for what people had to go through doing that time we wouldn't have the laws or the freedoms we have today. Thank you for mentioning the abolitionists as well who were mostly white and who risked their lives and livelihoods to help another human being. We all need to go back in time, white, black and whomever thinks that slavery wasn't bad, and really experience what the slaves had to go through. Knowledge is power

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