In 1903 W.E.B Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” Over 100 years later, that statement still rings true, it is playing out in the incidents in our cities, in disparities in education, healthcare and wealth, to name a few. Race, Racism, Systematic Racism, White Supremacy, Slavery, White Privilege and the nearly four century history and legacy of the abuse of the black body are not conversations for the faint at heart. These are not easy topics to explore, unpack and grasp if we are not ready for the truth, the whole truth. I’ve had the opportunity to hear from some of the nation’s foremost thinkers and historians talk about these things openly. I have also had the chance to discuss these topics with a dynamic group of community leaders who are committed to unpacking this hard truth and moving toward reconciliation. Despite our 400 year history and recent events in our nation, this gives me hope that we can look problems of the color line in the face, if we commit to facing the truth.
On Saturday, John Franklin from the Smithsonian who is involved in the efforts to build the African American History and Cultural Museum in Washington, DC spoke to the participants of the Community Trust building fellowship of Hope in the Cities. He gave us a brief history, with maps and numbers, of the transatlantic slave trade. He said that the Smithsonian wanted to begin the story of African American History with acknowledging that enslaved Africans stories did not begin when they arrived in America. His map showed the dispersal of African Slaves from 1500-1901 and it displayed how 15M+ people were dispersed around the world, only %5 of which went to the US. He noted that “the slave trade was one of the first forms of globalization,” and indeed his maps showed how the institution was a global enterprise.
The week before, I went to a talk by Edward Baptist, author of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalist.” Baptists’ premise is that slavery contributed to the rise of capitalism, that slaves were commodities, the labor and collateral that allowed the US and other western nations to flourish. Cotton was like gold a few centuries ago and enslaved Africans cultivated and picked it free of charge to be bought, sold and processed all over the world. Baptist gave the audience a history lesson on the slave trail that enslaved persons frequently walked from Virginia to places west and into the Deep South. He spoke aloud the 49 names of specific enslaved persons who walked hundreds of miles, nearly starved and in chains during a particular 6 week journey. This reminded us of their humanity, how they would never return to their families, friends and previous ways of life. This happened to people over and over again for centuries, and this is the labor force that built our nation. Our entire nation has and continues to benefit from what slave labor build. Conversely, we also suffer from the consequences inherited from Slavery and Jim Crow, like racial disparities and the wealth gap. I left holding another nugget of truth, glad it was being told.
This Thursday, I went to a MLK Celebration at the University of Virginia with Ta-nehisi Coates as the speaker. Coates wrote The Case for Reparations article which appeared in the Atlantic Magazine last year. The article was astounding, so I was glad to hear him speak in person. He began with a Thomas Jefferson quote about how whipping slaves in front of one’s white children is passing down a legacy and normalizing the abuse of black bodies. He noted that we are shocked by the killings of unarmed black boys by white police officers without consequence because “we do not have knowledge of the country we live in.” What we are facing is a 350 year legacy and heritage of abuse of black bodies and that legacy is what we are seeing played out in our cities today. “When we see a man chocked and there are no consequences, we say something about who lives matter.” Coates said that we would do better if we “acknowledge our 350 year heritage in conversations on race.”
He thought the wealth gap was an obvious issue to tackle in our time. He pointed out that whites have 20X the wealth of blacks, “for every $1 of wealth whites have, blacks have 5 cents.” He also noted where we live matters, “nobody is asking why Micheal Brown lived in the neighborhood he did, why are the conditions there the way they are.” I am reminded that almost every neighborhood I have lived in was one divided by a color line. The best neighborhoods I have lived in were all white and the worst were all black and severely under-resourced. Again the problem of the color line shows up, its embedded in our history, our minds, the contours of our neighborhoods.
When asked what educational institutions should do, Coates replied “so much of the problem is education,” “students need a serious understanding of American History” and “freshmen at UVA should be reading Jefferson’s notes on Virginia, particularly the section on slavery.”
When asked how whites could get other whites to understand white privilege, he spoke of moving away from talking about white privilege (he doesn’t like the term and uses white supremacy, racist and racism), the “focus on individuals is myopic, we need to talk about systemic things… we have a systemic problem of heritage and legacy.”
He admonished the audience to “make a commitment to struggle for struggles sake.” That though it’s a hard truth to face we are responsible to our grandparents who went before us and our grandchildren that will inherit our country because “things we look away from the next generations sees.” Coates denounced the idolization of past leaders because it makes the kind of progress they achieved seem unattainable; “Martin Luther King was a man…and the men and women in the civil right movement were no smarter than we are.” He finished by saying “at some point we will have to decide we want a different heritage.” I came away enriched, inspired and determined to be a part in facing the truth of the past and building a different heritage moving forward. I read an editorial in the Richmond Times Dispatch on Sunday morning about Baptiste’s book and his visit that had the same sentiment that I was feeling that “there is hope in the cities, and we shall never hope in vain.”
I was encouraged by these events that the truth is beginning to be told, the whole truth. I mentioned to a friend that “our nation needs to do some shadow work, we have to wrestle with the dark corners of our soul that we would rather deny.” Denying these things does not make them go away, they persist and rear their ugly heads in other ways and wreak havoc on our nation, in our cities and our people, both black and white. Baptiste, Franklin and Coates reminded me that reconciliation cannot happen without truth, embracing the whole truth of our shared past. The truth will set us free if we let it be told in its entirety. In that telling and reckoning, I believe we will move toward healing and wholeness.