“The Myth of the Happy Slave” and 6 Other Comments on The Senate’s Apology for Slavery

Earlier this morning, the weekly media panel on WBAI’s “Wake Up Call” (which featured regulars Stacy Patton and April R. Silver and this week, guests Chole and Hilary Crossley) was asked to dissect and comment on an article about The Senate’s apology for slavery. The Washington Post article can be found on this site (scroll down to see the “Senate Apologies for Slavery” entry for June 23). This was a good find by Esther Armah, host and moderator of the media panel. The article triggered a lot for me. My initial thoughts:

1. The article used the word “slave.” Que my regular song and dance routine: “Stop calling Black people “slaves!” Enslaved Africans is more precise. To call someone a “slave” directs attention away from and subtly absolves oppressors and thieves.

2. A 21st century government apology for the enslavement of Africans during the 16th and 17th century is a wonderful, polite, and richly grand example of what it means to be ignorant of (a) the traumatizing, generational affects of this once legal institution, and (b) how to heal those wounds.

3. When this so called “peculiar institution” was legal in this country, there emerged a perspective that enslaved Africans were actually happy with the overall treatment they received from those that enslaved them. These “slaves,” it was promoted, were grateful for the food, the shelter, the health care, the time off at sundown, and the fact that Ol’ Master was, for the most part, a fair and principled, God-fearing man. Why, he only issued beatings to niggas that tried to escape from the plantation. But to those niggas that minded their business, did what they were told, and didn’t cause no trouble…well then, slavery time was good living!

4. It’s the happy niggas that will accept an apology without restitution. Who does that? There are laws of nature that don’t support this lack of reciprocity.

5. What are the determining factors – political and philosophical – that guide a government’s stance when said government decides to offer one race or class of “harmed” people an apology, while offering another race or class an apology and economic reparations?

This question is raised when I contemplate the following: In 1988, President Ronald Regan issued a formal apology to Japanese Americans who were held in concentration camps during World War II. That same year, congress passed legislation that awarded formal payments of $20,000 to each of the survivors of those camps (estimated at 60,000 people). That year, the Canadian government also issued formal apologies to Japanese Canadian survivors. They were each paid a sum of $21,000 Canadian dollars. The Japanese Reparations Movement lasted from 1945 (the year the last government ordered interment camp was closed) to 1988…forty-three years (one lifetime). Fast forward to 2009. There are no reparations for the indigenous people of this country nor the children of ex-slaves – both representing races and classes of “harmed” people.

6. In this morning’s discussion on WBAI, Stacey Patton inserted an excellent point that people often forget: Reparations is bigger than mere financial repayment. There must be some accountability, for example, for the land that was stolen from African Americans during the times surrounding slavery, including the Jim Crow era. Her point reminded me of this excellent film by MARCO WILLIAMS, Banished: American Ethnic Cleansing. This documentary makes the case for reparations in a way that only a film can.

7. I believe in reparations and the fighter in me won’t let injustices and crimes go unchecked. Still I ask: What would a repaired relationship look like between the descendants of those who benefited from slavery and those that who did not? What if the United States government issued, to every African American, for example, a hefty check, a sizable piece of land, free tuition, free rent or waived mortgage’s for a year, free health care for the family for a year, a decent paying job and/or or job training…all wrapped up in a pretty bow with an apology from President Obama, and what if the government did that today…what would I do?

Be critical.

The fact is, there not an altruistic fiber in the fabric that makes up the American government. Not one. It is an institution that may best be characterized as a sheep in wolf’s clothing. If it were a “he” he’d be a clean-cut Goliath holding olive branches with honey dripping from his lips. If “he” packaged all these things in one gift, I’d not let down my slingshot.

As with a physically and psychologically abusive husband who attempts to bait his abused wife with shiny trinkets, the relationship can not be repaired with things. Maybe it would take a few centuries for me to be convinced that the monster has morphed into someone I can trust.