“One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over. We must not remember that Daniel Webster got drunk but only that he was a splendid constitutional lawyer. We must forget that George Washington was a slave owner … and simply remember the things we regard as creditable and inspiring. The difficulty, of course, with this philosophy is that history loses its value as an incentive and example; it paints perfect man and noble nations, but it does not tell the truth.” – W.E.B. Du Bois
My wife, Jen, and I share a passion for African-American history and literature so we went to the American I AM exhibit at the Atlanta Civic Center. The exhibit features countless artifacts that chronicle the African-American imprint on American society.
I was struck by the entrance to the exhibit. Above the Plexiglas case bearing the garnet-and-emerald graduation hood of W.E.B. Du Bois were the words above. There were other quotes etched in glass panels on the three opposing sides, each foreshadowing a shadow side to the history I gleaned from the white-paged textbooks of my primary education. I was captivated by Du Bois’ words – the fact that George Washington owned (maintained, and by many accounts fathered children by) slaves.
This would, perhaps, have been far less remarkable had I not seen a billboard heralding the “leadership” of our first president on the drive into the city.
As I read the words of Du Bois, I suddenly became aware of two competing historical narratives. The first is, arguably, well-meaning, painting our Founding Fathers and their compatriots along the way as national heroes. They are portrayed in art as men and women of absolute tenacity – eyes fixed on the horizon, despite the freezing Delaware River.
As quickly as I saw the billboard, it struck me that the picture was incomplete; war-weary patriots didn’t drive Washington’s boat across the Delaware River, at least not metaphorically. It was the backs of male children and domesticated teenagers, each ripped from their land by slave traders or warring tribesmen and pushed through the doors of Elmina Castle in Ghana.
If they managed to survive the heinous Middle Passage, they could look forward to working at the beck and call of such a “patriot” as Washington or comparable British ex-pats, holding on all the while to what little might be left of their souls.
Yes, my history books spoke of the horrors of slavery. There were “breakout boxes” that told of the courage of Sojourner Truth or the tenacity of Harriet Tubman. There was no mention of the slaves of Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams or Alexander Hamilton. There was no explanation that, as the great Cornel West says, “Woven around the legs of the desk on which the Declaration of Independence was signed is the great serpent of slavery and white supremacy.”
To be clear, this is more than a sudden realization of the grisly nature of slavery in the 1800s. As we meandered through the exhibit, we walked past the silver ink stand given to Harriet Beecher Stowe upon the completion of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to a silver goblet given to a Southern senator for “courage” after cane-whipping an abolitionist senator on the floor of the Capitol.
We walked past the white shirt of Frederick Douglass and its many indistinguishable stains – equal parts wine and blood. We walked past the 13th amendment that made slavery illegal and past the “whites only” parking sign that made it institutional. As we made our way through, it became very clear that we weren’t just seeing something; we were moving through something.
Four weeks after the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the most filmed meeting-over-a-beer in history, we are still moving through something. As human beings, we find ourselves so thoroughly entrenched in our own human experience that we cannot conceive that another human being could see history any differently.
And this is not just the kind of conversation that merits civil conversations over dinner or a drink. It’s the kind of systemic, deep-rooted, cancerous force that undermines the legitimacy of this or any democracy. The data shows the depths of the problem.
While one in 31 adults is currently incarcerated, the ratio narrows to one in nine for African-American men, according to the March report of the Pew Center on the States. Another two in nine are currently paroled, meaning that one in three African-American men is incarcerated or under judicial constraint. In Georgia, for every dollar spent on education, 50 cents – half – is spent on maintaining correctional facilities. In many predominately African-American communities there is, as the civil rights pioneer Marion Wright Edelman has said, a “cradle-to-prison pipeline.”
As Jen and I walked through the exhibit, I was shocked to find that on that particular Thursday, we were the only two Anglo-American individuals there. I am still trying to process the implications of this. On the one hand, maintaining one’s history and exposing future generations to the stories – many of which will not be heard in classrooms and textbooks – is a critical and noble task.
But if we find ourselves celebrating only our own experience, then we commit the sin of my youth, venerating and lauding as history an incomplete and cartoonish caricature. I am glad to say the exhibit showed the triumphs and travails of the African-American experience. I am grateful for the way in which it fundamentally changed how I see the world. I am grieved by the fact that, by my unscientific experience, more Anglo-Americans and Asians and Hispanics and Native Americans have yet to come to the table – to weave from our individual strands a truer tapestry of human experience, even of the birth of a nation.
To embrace such a task requires acknowledging theft of land, person and property, genocide and forced labor. It means recognizing that the perceived wealth of the free market was built on the shoulders of kidnapped Africans. It means acknowledging that our Founding Fathers may not look so good when all the lights are turned on or hoisted on billboards.
It means coming to grips with all manner of hatred and envy, seeking forgiveness and restoration. It means that it happens around conference tables and around dinner tables. It means that we must all commit ourselves to the sacred task of reconciliation, recognizing that across all religions and spectrums of belief that love for neighbor is, always, implicitly holy.