Slavery and the State of Denial

Salim Muwakkil

On Feb. 24, Virginia’s state assembly voted unanimously to express profound regret” for the state’s 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. 

Guilt is the primary reason white Americans refuse to confront the race-based slavery that laid the foundation for this nation's wealth.

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. 

Slavery’s historical significance was further underlined by disclosures that presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama (D‑Ill.), the Hawaiian-born son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, is descended from slave owners. His great-great-great-great grandfather George Washington Overall owned a 15-year-old girl and a 25-year-old man, according to the 1850 census in Nelson County, Ky. 

An Obama spokesman said, It is a true measure of progress that the descendant of a slave owner would come to marry a student from Kenya and produce a son who would grow up to be a candidate for president of the United States.” 

It is progress indeed. But the measurement is mostly symbolic. Obama may physically embody racial reconciliation, but the society in which he moves has yet to reconcile disparate racial realities. Peruse the statistics of social well-being and you’ll find glaring discrepancies between white and black Americans. 

One of the reasons for these enduring disparities is a lack of governmental attention to slavery’s lengthening legacy. Because of our tendency to deny unflattering history, most Americans know very little of slavery’s enormous, multi-generational impact. The current media prominence of slavery stories helps dispel some of that ignorance. Attempts by lawmakers to admit governmental culpability for the outrage of slavery also go a long way in educating Americans about this tarnished past.

With apologies and mea culpa in the air, it would seem a propitious time to re-introduce H.R. 40, Rep. John Conyers’ (D‑Mich.) bill to appoint a commission to analyze the effects of slavery. Since 1989, Conyers, who is now the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has introduced H.R. 40 in every Congress. And in every Congress it has lain dormant. The legislation instructs the commission to review whether any form of compensation to the descendants of African slaves is warranted.”

Cohen’s resolution is more explicit than Conyers’ and calls for a commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow.” His bill, which already has 50 co-sponsors, opens the way for a serious discussion about reparations for the legacy of slavery and a permanent exit from the state of denial.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.
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