Monday, June 30, 2008

Slavery and Guilt

An upcoming PBS special "Traces of the Trade: a Story from the Deep North" chronicles the trip taken by 10 members of the DeWolfe family to visit the slave castles in Ghana
and places in Cuba. Their family had traded slaves from Ghana and used them in their Cuban sugar plantations in the 19th century. The documentary is based on a book written by one of the members of this family, Katrina Browne, uncovering the family's history in the trafficking in human beings.

According to one man who went on this journey, James DeWolfe Perry V, people who had read the book or seen the documentary asked him whether he felt any guilt because his ancestors were slavers. He responds: "I don't feel guilty about what my ancestors did, because I didn't do it."

That seems right. It is unreasonable to feel guilt about things one did not do. What is more, guilt often paralyzes people. The guilty indulge in endless self accusation that keep them from taking action to repair the damage done, wherever possible. Guilt can, however, take more positive forms. Instead of an emotion that paralyzes, guilt, at its best, is an eagerness to make amends, to help those one has harmed, and to improve oneself to do better in the future.

The slave trade is a thing of the past -- or almost so. Last week a very rich couple in New York was convicted of keeping their undocumented household help as virtual slaves. There is still a trade in women destined to end up as prostitutes. They, too, are virtually enslaved.

But the slave system as it existed until the Civil War and, for all practical purposes, for another hundred years after that, it is now no longer with us. Feeling guilt about what is past is unproductive.

But to the extent that the after effects of the slave system are still with us, all of us deserve to feel guilt -- not the guilt that paralyzes by self accusation, but the guilt that wants to change the world and also ourselves for the better.

Yes, to be sure the Democratic party has nominated a black man to be its presidential candidate. Other black men and women hold positions of leadership in business, in government, in the arts and in local communities. At the same time, average black Americans earn less, own less wealth, and are more likely to end up in prison, or to receive second-rate medical care when they are sick than many white people. Slavery may be a thing of the past but its effects are still with us.

Its effects are with us in a second way. The descendants of the DeWolfe family travels to Africa and to Cuba to retrace some of its family history. People on welfare usually don't undertake that kind of travel. That family and many others still profit from the slave trading of their ancestors. So do American institutions. Another Rhode Island family, the Browns, became wealthy in the slave trade and endowed a college which is now known as Brown University. The students and faculty at that college are still the beneficiaries of the slave trade.

The effects of the slave trade remain are very much with us in the well-being of some and the difficult lives of others.

All of us, including James DeWolfe Perry V, should acknowledge that these inequalities are an important heritage from our slave owning ancestors. We may let them suffer the punishment of a just God. But those of us who profit from the after effects of the slave trade must take responsibility for that and work as hard as we can to end racial discrimination and its many injustices.

Some examples: schools in low income -- and that means frequently black or Hispanic -- neighborhoods often have fewer resources than schools in more affluent neighborhoods. As taxpayers we must resist the agitation for lowering taxes and instead be willing to pay for giving a good education to all children, especially those whose ancestors were enslaved by the ancestors of some of us. We must be willing to provide a halfway decent standard of living to everyone and that involves food, shelter, medical care and access to education.

As long as the effects of slavery endure we must redouble our efforts to overcome them.