For a long time the plaintive cry was “Can we talk about race?” It wasn’t very often clear what we meant by that. But it suggested groups of black and white people talking about their experience, fears and hopes related to race and prejudice. A sort of inter-racial encounter group.
Well-intended but naive. I remember Sam McKinney, longtime pastor of Seattle’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church, pooh-poohing such ventures, suggesting they were on the order of the pre-school song, “The more we get together, the happier we’ll be.” Not that easy.
It does seem that we have moved to a different place. I would characterize it as getting serious about looking at our history, in particular, the history on the institution of slavery, the aborted era of reconstruction, and then the legalized segregation of Jim Crow. We wanted to celebrate the Civil Rights Movement, but not to look at or learn about the historical record.
This truth-telling has, of course, been fraught with conflict. Conflict over “The 1619 Project,” over “Critical Race Theory,” and identity politics. There have been excesses to be sure. But the conflict may be part of healing. You can’t heal a wound without opening it up and cleaning it out. And that is painful.
My book group’s current reading is a series of works by African-American authors, both fiction (Deacon King Kong by James McBride) and non-fiction (The Sum of Us by Heather McGee). Classics (The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison) and contemporary works by Colson Whitehead, Nathan Harris and Octavia Butler.
I am currently reading Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which is a novel. Whitehead is known for his meticulous historical research. A friend described it as “essential reading.” I think he’s right. Why? It records the brutality of slavery. It does so not simply by piling up stories of violence and trauma, though they are a part of it. What Whitehead conveys, at least to me, is the terrible closed nature of slavery, the utter despair of world without hope.
It is a hard book to read. Its essential nature is underscored when it is compared with a textbook in use in the 1950’s – 1970’s in Virginia public schools. I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, a close-in suburb of Washington, D. C., where my father worked for the Department of the Interior.
The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank recently quoted from that standard text and how on Virginia history and it described the institution of slavery for school kids like me. Here are excerpts from that text:
“A feeling of strong affection existed between masters and slaves in a majority of Virginia homes. … It was to [the master’s] own interest to keep his slaves contented and in good health. If he treated them well, he could win their loyalty and cooperation. … The intelligent master found it profitable to discover and develop the talents and abilities of each slave. … The more progressive planters tried to promote loyalty and love of work by gifts and awards.”
“Many Negroes were taught to read and write. Many of them were allowed to meet in groups for preaching, for funerals, and for singing and dancing. They went visiting at night and sometimes owned guns. … Most of them were treated with kindness.”
And two more paragraphs from that standard text which I probably read and was taught,
“Each slave was given a weekly ration consisting of three or four pounds of pork and plenty of corn meal and molasses. To this food were added the vegetables, fruits, hogs and chickens which the slaves were allowed to raise for themselves. … When a slave was sick, tempting food was often carried to him from the master’s table. … At [Christmas,] extra rations and presents were given the slaves.”
“Male field hands received each year two summer suits, two winter suits, a straw hat, a wool hat, and two pairs of shoes. … Often the members of the master’s family would hand down to their favorite slaves clothing which they no longer needed. … [The slaves] loved finery.”
Milbank’s quotes this textbook to get into the conflict over what is taught in Virginia public schools today. That became the major issue in the Virginia gubernatorial race that brought Republican, Glenn Youngkin, into office. Milbank wonders if this kind of platitudinous crap may be preferred to a truthful historical reckoning? Clearly, the battle over what is taught in public schools rages on, with different outcomes in different parts of the country.
But the truth is out there. We want reconciliation, but do we also want truth? I don’t think you can have the former without the latter.