‘I’m so sick and tired of hearing about slavery! That was 150 years ago!’


Inevitably, in conversations with friends, acquaintances or folks I meet here and there, when conversation turns to racism, someone will almost always say something along the lines of:

“I’m so sick and tired of hearing about how black people were put in slavery. That was 150 years ago. They’ve had plenty of time to get their things together. That can’t be blamed on today’s society.”

Recently, something similar was said by a friend. We were discussing black face and he asked if the reaction people have to black face would be the same as if someone dressed in “white face.”

“No, it wouldn’t be the same, because black people didn’t enslave, brutalize, rape and kill millions of white people for centuries,” I countered.

“That was 150 years ago,” my friend rebutted. “I’m so tired of hearing how black people were put in slavery.”

“Yeah,” I responded, “that was 150 years ago, topped by another 100 years of oppressive Jim Crow laws.”

For most people, 150 years does sound like a long time. The thing is, it’s not an accurate assessment of history. It’s been only about 50 years, less than one human lifetime, since black Americans were finally given full equality under the law. There are people still living today who can vividly remember segregated schoolhouses, buses, water fountains, theaters, restaurants and rail cars. Depending on age, some of these people are either my generation’s parents or grandparents.

Take my grandfather, for instance. Born in 1928, he’s still alive today. And, he was born early enough to be able, if he wanted, to hear recollections from his grandfather, born in 1879, the year Reconstruction ended, and whose father and uncles served in the Confederate Army. In 2013, I — at 27 years old and with my grandfather at 85 — have a near-direct, living connection to an event that took place a century-and-a-half ago. (Interestingly, my great-great grandfather died just 14 years before I was born.)

History, however distant it may feel now, is never really so far away or out of our touch.

And, the oppression of black Americans didn’t end in 1865. That oppressive history is one my grandfather was alive to witness — a history he’s imparted to me.

“Grandpa, when you were growing up, did you ever know anyone in the Ku Klux Klan?” I asked at one Christmas gathering.

He responded, saying nobody ever really knew who they were. They weren’t public, he said.

“I never really did care for them much,” Grandpa said. “They did a whole lot of hurt and caused a whole lot of pain to a lot people who didn’t deserve it.”

History, however distant it may feel now, is never really so far away or out of our touch.

In our fast-paced, modern world, perhaps it’s easy to forget that change, indeed, does often take quite a long time. Sometimes, that change is hampered by a history so completely outside of our human control that it creates deep, complex problems with very few easy or quick solutions.

Lisa Wade, Ph.D., is an associate professor and chair of the Sociology Department at Occidental College. Via her Sociological Images Tumblr, Wade recently pointed to images she originally shared back in 2008 from blogger Jeff Fecke at Alas A Blog.

They got me thinking about history and its affects on us today.

In 1860, this is what cotton production looked like in the U.S.:

This map of the “black belt” (I’ll leave it to you to pick up the obvious connection between “cotton” and “black belt”) is one I’ve seen plenty times before in my studies of southern history.

And, this, is that same map, overlayed on top of 2008 presidential election results by county:

History, however distant it may feel now, is never really so far away or out of our touch.

And, in this particular example, history goes much, much deeper — much, much further into the distant past.

Why, one might ask, did the black belt take this form? What first gave shape to it? What was the first cause that gave rise to a slave-based, agricultural society that left an indelible mark on American politics a century-and-a-half later?

The ancient North American coast line, 65 million years ago:

Fecke explains:

Along the ancient coastline, life thrived, as usually does. It especially thrived in the delta region, the Bay of Tennessee, if you will. Here life reproduced, ate, excreted, lived, and died. On the shallow ocean floor, organic debris settled, slowly building a rich layer of nutritious debris. Eventually, the debris would rise as the sea departed, becoming a thick, rich layer of soil that ran from Louisiana to South Carolina.

65 million years later, European settlers in America would discover this soil, which was perfect for growing cotton.

Shortly after that, Europeans would enslave an entire race. Hundreds of years after that, the Civil War ended that slavery. Many former slaves stayed right where they were born, where generations of their kin before them had lived and died, not always because of choice, but because of harsh Jim Crow laws, forced prison labor systems, restrictions on movement and voting and other laws that were as oppressive as possible, short of now-illegal enslavement. And, only mere decades after that, their children and children’s children would leave an impact in electoral politics, patterned in an eerily similar way as the black belt.

And, there we have it: modern U.S. politics, 65 million years in the making. Another reminder that history, however distant it may feel now, is never really so far away or out of our touch.

So, you’re tired of hearing about slavery? Too bad. The effects of slavery are ever-present, even today — in our politics, in our economy, in every aspect of our culture. We’ve got a long, long way to go before that stain on our history is made clean. Fortunately, for all of us, I don’t think it will take 65 million years.


Comments
2 Responses to “‘I’m so sick and tired of hearing about slavery! That was 150 years ago!’”
  1. JohnB (GoodTimeFrog) says:

    Nicely written, well said! Think of the trillions of dollars in wealth over the centuries, never rightly paid out for all that hard labor, a huge chunk of GDP. More important that money, the horror of the middle passage! It’s every future generation’s responsibility to make it right in their own way.

  2. Raine Cole says:

    No Matt, it certainly didn’t end in 1865. In addition to the Jim Crow laws there was the system of Peonage here in the South which actually remained in place until about 1940, even though it was outlawed by Congress in 1867. This was a system of debt servitude and I believe it was just as, if not more so, brutal as the slave system. PBS aired a documentary about it called “Slavery by Another Name.” You can watch it online or just read about it here: http://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/

Leave A Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.