Why the White South Is Still in Denial About Slavery
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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?
If it’s true that we’re all breathing Caesar’s breath — that because of the finite amount of perpetually moving molecules on Earth, one or two that he breathed are in each of our exhalations — then we don’t need to dress up in his clothes to connect ourselves to the past, we’re already wearing them. The past is with us always, but we need to live with it, open our eyes and poke around in it, take it all in: the good, the bad and the mythic, if we want to stay connected to the ever-changing present.
Peter Birkenhead is a writer living in Los Angeles.