Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Dealing with the past

Henry Brown, a slave from Richmond:
The next day, I stationed myself by the side of the road, along which the slaves, amounting to three hundred and fifty, were to pass. The purchaser of my wife was a Methodist minister, who was about starting for North Carolina. Pretty soon five waggon-loads of little children passed, and looking at the foremost one, what should I see but a little child, pointing its tiny hand towards me, exclaiming, “There’s my father; I knew he would come and bid me good-bye.” It was my eldest child! Soon the gang approached in which my wife was chained. I looked, and beheld her familiar face; but O, reader, that glance of agony! may God spare me ever again enduring the excruciating horror of that moment! She passed, and came near to where I stood. I seized hold of her hand, intending to bid her farewell; but words failed me; the gift of utterance had fled, and I remained speechless. I followed her for some distance, with her hand grasped in mine, as if to save her from her fate, but I could not speak, and I was obliged to turn away in silence.
I used to read these kinds of stories as though they happened in some distant and entirely alien civilization.  And in so many ways the past is just that. But I'm finding each year that the past crowds in on me more. It may be past but its echoes are not yet gone.

Sometimes my students ask me questions that run something like this: "When did America fix racism?"

I wish I could assign Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations" in response. It is absolutely worth your time, no matter what you think about the idea of reparations.