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Remembering Slavery

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Excellent Peter Birkenhead piece at Alternet on the exclusion of slavery on private plantation home tours in the South. Slave cabins are being turned into spas and restaurants rather than spaces of remembering our national shame.

If America is a family, it’s a family that has tacitly agreed to never speak again — not with much honesty, anyway — about the terrible things that went on in its divided house. Slavery has been taught, it has been written about. There can’t be many subjects that rival it as an academic ink-guzzler. But the culture has not digested slavery in a meaningful way, hasn’t absorbed it the way it has World War II or the Kennedy assassination. We don’t feel the connections to it in our bones. It’s hard enough these days to connect with what happened 15 minutes ago, let alone 15 decades, given the endless layers of “classic,” “heirloom,” “traditional” “collectible,” “old school” comfort we’re swaddled in. But isn’t it the least we could do? What is the willful forgetting of slavery if not the coverup of a crime, an abdication of responsibility to its victims and to ourselves?

There are pretty clear reasons why we don’t remember slavery as we do WWII or Kennedy. World War II was one of the very few events in American history that truly united the nation, not to mention ending the Depression. We could truly paint ourselves as the good guys facing the bad guys and not be wrong. Combined with the wealth then produced by that generation after the war and the rise of television to broadcast it all, it’s became a story of celebration. Kennedy’s assassination is not a celebration, but is rather the touchstone event in the lives of the baby boomers which have dominated American life for the last half-century or more. Kennedy allows boomers to tell stories about themselves.

Slavery on the other hand is a terrible thing with no positive story at the end, unless you are Pat Buchanan and long for the days of Jim Crow. We still live with the effects of slavery today and we don’t want to remember it because it means we then have to think about race in America. Even the young people I teach who might be politically progressive are, by and large, allergic to discussions of race, even more so than class and way more than gender and sexuality. We can talk about Native Americans but the stories we tell ourselves about them are wrapped in our own mythology and the general (and very false) assumption that outside a few people running casinos, they are gone. But slavery, that’s a hot and very uncomfortable topic. And not only on Louisiana plantation tours.

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