Tuesday, March 06, 2007
From The Chicago Tribune…
Reality of slavery’s past still present
By Leonard Pitts, a syndicated columnist based in Washington
Somewhere, the gods of irony are laughing.
Can you blame them? Last month came news that Ancestry.com, a genealogical Web site, had documented a startling link between two very unalike men. It turns out an ancestor of the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond once owned an ancestor of the Rev. Al Sharpton. Two icons of 20th Century racial politics--the one a strident foe of integration, the other regarded by some as a bogeyman of racial activism--linked by ownership.
Somewhere, the gods are amused.
Sharpton is not. He has pronounced himself torn by conflicting emotion: humiliation, anger, pride and, above all, shock.
The reaction from Thurmond’s family, meanwhile, has been characterized by that curious shrug of shoulders, that ambivalence and eagerness to change the subject one often finds in white people when slavery gets personal.
“I don’t feel one way or the other,” Thurmond’s 74-year-old niece, Doris Strom Costner, told The Washington Post.
“I have no comment,” Paul Thurmond, the senator’s youngest son, told the New York Daily News.
And then there’s Essie Mae Washington-Williams, product of a liaison Thurmond had with a 16-year-old black maid when he was in his 20s. She says Sharpton is guilty of “overreaction” about her father. “In spite of being a segregationist, he did many wonderful things for black people,” she said.
Too bad those wonderful things did not include renouncing his hateful views or publicly acknowledging his black daughter.
William Faulkner was right: “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”
It’s a truth from which many of us instinctively recoil where slavery is concerned. We reject anything that threatens to bring us in too close or make too plain the connections between then and now, that and this.
A man asked me just the other day how much longer I intend to make “excuses” for the problems of black kids. Racial oppression is in the past, he said. We’ve been pumping money into “minority programs” for more than 40 years, he said. Where’s the progress, he said.
And I’m thinking to myself, Lord, give me strength.
Surely I have not been derelict in pointing out the failures of and the need for the black community to be active and proactive in its own salvation. But if it’s true that black folk have work to do, it’s also true that the need for that work did not spring from nowhere but, rather, from a 350-year epoch of physical and--this is important--emotional brutalization. And some of us are impatient that 40 years of mostly half-hearted attempts at a remedy have not made things hunky dory? Oh, please.
Of course, by this point maybe he has stopped listening. Maybe you have too. Mention of that 350 years tends to have that effect.
Hence the ambivalence—“nervous chuckles,” reported the Orlando Sentinel of a visit to Thurmond’s hometown--that greeted last week’s news in some quarters. Small wonder. It removed the shield of abstract. It put a face on the thing. And the danger is that if we can imagine that face, we can imagine others.
Condoleezza Rice purchased as breeding stock.
Oprah Winfrey raped on a nightly basis.
Will Smith, his back split open by a whip.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) living with the same rights under the law, the same expectation of dignity, as a horse or a chair.
We spend a lot of time running from this. But we never escape. That’s the lesson of Sharpton’s experience, the reason for nervous chuckles and ambivalent shrugs. It’s an unwelcome reminder that some stains don’t wash out, some dead things do not rest.
And we live in the presence of the past.