Saturday, April 13, 2013


[I]t is one thing to believe that deficit reduction is the most important issue of the day. It is another to imply that the Middle Passage was like "riding on a crowded airplane when you're not in first class." It is one thing to believe that America must always have the world's strongest military. It is another to say, "Thank God for slavery." It is one thing oppose gun regulation. It is another to say, to "the white man for going there and getting us here, I want to say 'Thanks.'"
Ta-Nehisi Coates The Conservative Black Hope, Cont.
Okay. I'll bite, and tackle the question of "Why?"

I understand the idea that there's something wrong with downplaying the horrid conditions on slave ships to the Americas. I honestly doubt that Jesse Lee Peterson, the man to whom Mr. Coates is referring, would actually find being chained naked in the hold of a wooden sailing ship with inconsistent access to food, water and sanitation to be in any way similar to being seated in a crowded economy class airplane cabin. And I doubt that even the most ardent critics of airline travel would, if they experienced being shipped across an ocean in the way slaves were, describe the two as similar. So this, at least, strikes me as a factually inaccurate statement.

But the rest of it? That modern African-Americans should thank both God and "the white man" (along with the Arabs and blacks that also participated in the slave trade) for their ancestors being forcibly removed from their homelands and enslaved? It's understandable why people become bent out of shape about that. It's not much different than when Pope Benedict XVI claimed that South American natives had been "silently longing" to become Christians and so welcomed the conversion that came with a violent conquest. But in both cases what you have is someone saying that, despite the details of HOW it had been carried out (and Peterson does, rather clumsily, acknowledge that there was a lot of suffering involved), that group A had done group B a favor. In other words, all's well that ends well.

And therein lies the answer to our question. Jesse Lee Peterson's defense of slavery as a means of adding "American" to "African" triggers fears of justifiable marginalization. That once it's decided that someone's culture, religion or standard of living are lacking, that it's okay for other people to come in and have their way with them, so long as, at some point in the future, a "proper" state is reached. The ends of "correcting" perceived "barbarism" justifies any and all means that will achieve it.

But it's worth pointing out that Peterson is never quoted saying any of this. I doubt that you could get him to sincerely state that he believes that it would be justified to re-institute slavery from Africa (or anyplace else, for that matter), so long as, in two to four hundred years, the descendents of the enslaved would be wealthier, healthier and more Christian than those left behind.

The fear of marginalization is one of the most enduring legacies of oppression. The concern that the past won't stay dead can be ever-present. But it's not an objective thing. It exists within us to the extent that we allow it. And while there is nothing wrong with pointing out the factors that fuel that fear, it's important that we don't let them take on a life of their own, and that we don't attribute ill intent to the people whose statements awaken our concerns. Implication is in the eye of the beholder, and speaks more loudly of the listener than the speaker. We should remember that.

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