Tributes to Sheldon Seevak

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Posted November 16, 2008 in Race, class, ethnicity, and stereotyping
Ellis Cose, "Memories in Blood: History Has Its Needs..." Newsweek (December 8, 1997)

WRITING IN ESSENCE MAGAZINE, ""AMISTAD'' midwife Debbie Allen described the Joseph Cinque saga as ""a little drop in a big bucket of blood memory we need to share with the world.'' Allen's implicit assumption is that ""Amistad'' is not enough, that we need to reach deeper into that bucket if we are to understand America.

S. Allen Counter, neurophysiologist, Harvard University professor and head of the Harvard Foundation, believes that nothing less than a national monument to slavery can transmit the essence of those blood memories across the generations. For years he has sought backing for a memorial on the Washington Mall that would showcase the hold of a slave ship with 300-plus men, women and children packed inside. Such a monument, he contends, ""would answer all the questions,'' by providing some sense of the immensity of the pain endured and horror perpetrated in forging and preserving the Union. And if placed in the heart of the nation's capital, a city that was legally segregated well into this century, the memorial's lesson could not be easily overlooked.

Certainly, as Allen suggests, the Amistad story does not answer ""all the questions'' about slavery. Indeed, in some sense it is not much about slavery at all, but about heroic men who chose mutiny over slavery and, in the end, won freedom on a technicality. But is it really important for this generation of Americans to know much more about slavery than can be gleaned from a movie or two?

John Powell, head of the Institute of Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School, insists that it is. If we are to make sense of our country, he says, we must understand that peculiar institution and its aftereffects. The acceptance of slavery was an essential compromise that allowed the United States to be born, he points out, and thus set the terms for what it has become: ""The enslavement of blacks really created freedom for whites.''

Some scholars see slavery's legacy not simply in political-moral terms but in economic ones. In ""Black Wealth, White Wealth,'' sociologists Melvin Oliver and Tom Shapiro documented the huge racial disparity in accumulated resources. Middle-class blacks, they calculated, earn 70 percent of the income of middle-class whites but possess only 15 percent of the wealth. The basic reason, they argue, is slavery--which denied generations of blacks the possibility of acquiring any substantial assets. Following the Civil War, that inequality was compounded by decades of discriminatory policies that, among other things, denied most blacks access to land settled upon by white homesteaders, and that made it difficult for blacks to own and operate businesses.

As a factual matter, Oliver and Shapiro are right. But what does that have to do with anybody today? The slaves are all dead, as are those who enslaved them. Isn't there some generational statute of limitations? In ruminating on post-apartheid South Africa, Mamphela Ramphele, vice chairman of the University of Cape Town, observed, ""There are limits to the extent to which one can correct for past wrongs. One may have to make peace with the past.''

If black South Africans, whose oppression is so recent that it burns within their memories, can talk about accepting the unfairness of history, why can't black Americans? Powell believes that such an argument misses an important point. ""I would be very happy to forget about slavery,'' he says, ""if we could also forget about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.'' For slavery (and the policies developed in its wake) continues, like those documents, to define a large part of America--in terms not only of attitudes and resources but also of life possibilities. Until the country comes to terms with that, maintains Powell, there will not be a ""serious process of healing.'' Like Counter, Powell believes a memorial would be a monumental help, provided that it is not merely a shallow or symbolic gesture.

The Counter-Powell hope, in essence, is that a better understanding of American history will somehow affect the way we see--and presumably implement--social policy today. If we can make the connection between slavery and, say, inner-city poverty, we will be better prepared to combat it. And we may also be more willing to do so.

I am not convinced that the will to resolve social inequality has much to do with a sophisticated understanding of history. Nor am I persuaded that a monument on the Mall will lead to a massive reawakening of American consciousness. Counter and Powell, however, are fundamentally correct in their insistence that the past matters. And they are right to search for ways to remind us of that; just as the creators of the new Museum of African-American History in Detroit were right to showcase the American tragedy of slavery. The reason is not that such knowledge will necessarily lead to good policymaking, but that ignorance will surely lead to bad.


Category: Race, class, ethnicity, and stereotyping