Acknowledging Slavery’s Limits in Defining America

To be black in America is to have some relationship to the historic tragedy of slavery. American slavery, often referred to as a type of chattel slavery, as unique as a condition of servitude in the tortured history of forced bondage in the human race. Whereas, before the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the institution of slavery as it existed across continents and time periods typically allowed forced servitude to exist as a consequence of military defeat or financial debt, chattel slavery in the Americas relied on the active capturing or purchasing of Africans whose continued enshacklement was justified (in the racial ideology that evolved) as the proper expression of the natural hierarchy of the races.

From such insidious origins, the evolution of many American institutions, and much in the way of the education and psychological formation of black Americans themselves, were affected. Yet in recognizing this fact, black Americans — and all Americans today — should also recognize that it is possible that the effect of slavery and racial oppression on our society today grows largely out of the power that we choose to give it. Slavery is limited in its ability to determine the success of black Americans in our present day. The legacy of slavery is not what determines the fundamental character of our country — unless we choose for that to be so.

In the spring of 2008, on the verge of winning the Democratic nomination for president, Barack Obama delivered a landmark address on the subject of race to a nation still somewhat dubious about the prospect of a black man becoming president of the United States. Obama opened by making a quick reference to “this nation’s original sin of slavery,” noting that it left “unfinished” the liberating work of the Declaration of Independence.

Yet he proceeded to observe that in the ideals that informed America’s founding were sown the seeds of its redemption: “Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution — a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty and justice and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.

“And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States,” he continued. “What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part … to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”

That is true. And this truth provides the understandable root of a claim by Nikole Hannah-Jones, chief editor for the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” that: “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.”

Indeed, black Americans, alongside many others, have fought for generations to deliver America to her higher values. But there is something linguistically confused about suggesting American ideals (or anyone’s ideals, for that matter) are false. Ideals are not statements of fact to be true or false; they are just that: ideals. They are the better realities to which we aspire.

Thus the narrative of many individuals who believe the United States ought to be defined more by her moral failings than by her moral triumphs and aspirations tends to be one that de-emphasizes our nation’s proven ability to overcome these moral failings. The heart of American history is diminished in so doing.

There are sympathetic reasons for this way of seeing America, however, particularly when it comes to the moral failing of slavery. In his epic essay for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates asserts that the great thrust of black history in America threatens America’s ability to look at itself the way that it wants to. Thus, the idea of reparations exposes us to a conversation in which the white majority and those of us invested in an idealistic understanding of the nation’s history stand unprepared to engage — that is, a conversation about the immoral magnitude of the transgressions that stain America’s past and present vis-à-vis its treatment of black people. The threat of reparations to such idealistic Americans is about more than money: “The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper — America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.”

According to Coates, “Black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it. The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter.”

Coates may be right. There is a depth of anguish and a long story of both crude and sophisticated persecution of black Americans that originates with slavery but runs through the story of black American history in nearly every major region and time period. One never even needs to study the antebellum South and Jim Crow laws to be appalled by the racial history of New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago. Yet, until recently, relatively few Americans were familiar with the history of redlining; the ghettoization of black communities through New Deal housing policies; cruelty in the historic practice of medicine involving black Americans; and all of the ways in which these historic injustices can be traced back to slavery, and forward to a current moment that, in various ways, still echoes with the consequences. Because these things happened, and do indeed have consequences, our understanding of America must take them into account.

Writers such as Coates and the contributors to the 1619 Project do a thorough job of reacquainting us with uncomfortable streams of our history, which in places run more like rivers. They recall facts that some may prefer to ignore, but which ought not be forgotten.

But to make limitless the effect of slavery and historic racism on the current moment is to risk overlooking the ways in which black Americans have overcome these and other obstacles by holding to the values that informed the nation’s founding, and that have been traditionally recognized as the virtues by which American society has achieved preeminence: a stalwart defense of liberty and equality as ideals to which all human beings and are rightfully entitled, and an embrace of faith, family and communal solidarity that has made black culture in America arguably its most enduring and distinctive (the relative deterioration of which in the aftermath of the Great Society is arguably the most salient threat facing black America).

As Nikole Hannah-Jones would seem to suggest, black Americans have epitomized these foundational values. But in so doing, black history does not belie them as definitively American ideals — it confirms them. So, too, does the long history of white Americans and others who took up arms and pens in defense of these rights and virtues alongside the black community.

In diminishing the idea that racism in American history and its lingering effects are overcome by the enterprise, family grounding and moral courage of Americans (and those who emigrate to this country in search of the American Dream), one also risks gliding by the wide body of evidence demonstrating that people of exactly similar ethnic appearance (including black people) in America succeed at wildly different rates, and outperform other groups, depending on the cultural disposition they bring to life in the United States. My fellow contributor to “1776,” Coleman Hughes, has done an admirable job highlighting this fact by comparing the educational and economic outcomes of immigrants from the West Indies to native-born black Americans in his Quillette essay, “The Racism Treadmill.”

But even culture itself evolves according to history, so Coates would argue. If there are flaws in black American culture that account for some of today’s problems, they exist as a byproduct of an American history that begins with slavery, continuing in an unending epoch of racism. Fair enough — a people’s history cannot be disconnected from its culture. But what we choose to emphasize in our history reflects in our culture, and in the stories we tell ourselves that determine how we relate to this country and what is possible for us within it.

In his introduction to “The Classic Slave Narratives,” historian Henry Louis Gates makes a compelling observation about slaves in the United States: “One of the most curious aspects of the African person’s enslavement in the New World is that he and she wrote about the severe conditions of their bondage.”

He continues: “In the long history of human bondage, it was only the black slaves in the United States who … created a genre of literature that at once testified against their captors and bore witness to the urge of every black slave to be free and literate. Hundreds of ex-slaves felt compelled to tell their tales on the anti-slavery lecture circuit in the North and in the written form of the autobiographical narrative.”

Who has a greater claim to the legacy of America — the men who enslaved their fellow human-beings in contradiction of the principles that guided the nation’s founding, or the slaves who, through a greater belief in freedom, added to the canon of freedom that enriches America’s understanding of herself to this day? Who has a greater claim — those white people who defended the “peculiar institution” or those white people who enthusiastically received Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs on the lecture circuit, plus the thousands upon thousands who read their books and pushed forward the cause of freedom? Do the triumphs of these devotees to freedom and equality in America begin a story about our nation’s moral failures, or is it a story about America’s long march towards her higher aspirations?

The answer to this question depends on what we, as Americans, choose to define our nation and ourselves by. This, in turn, will determine what our nation will become.