Questions about slavery

October 27, 1998|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- It was not enough for Oprah Winfrey to do a movie about slavery. She felt she needed to live it, too. At least a little.

So, she took off into the Maryland woods to participate -- blindfolded! -- in a re-enactment of what it was like to be a slave on the Underground Railroad.

I was tempted to ridicule Oprah for her brief woodland adventure (Did she wear her designer hiking boots? Did her personal assistant tag along? What was her pager number? 1-800-TIC-BITE?)

But I resisted, partly because I feel her pain.

"I was trying to escape, and I just lost it," she told E!, the entertainment cable channel. "I was crying hysterically. I felt these incredible shock waves of pain. Then the guy who was my owner, my master, found me and said, 'N------, you belong to me.'

"I knew I was still Oprah Winfrey, and I could take off the blindfold any time I wanted . . . I wanted to quit, but I didn't . . . I came out fearless because I truly learned where I came from."

As with many other African Americans of my generation, slavery always has been an intriguing mystery to me. Everybody in the family knew that my great-grandparents were born in slavery, that they worked cotton fields in Alabama and that our family somehow endured, survived and, after emancipation, prospered.

Shamed by the past

Yet, those years before emancipation were a fog. Our elders remained oddly tight-lipped about them. "Let the past bury the past," they would scold us, as if slavery was, at best, too horrible to recount or, at worst, a humiliation we should try to forget.

So, if Oprah could leave her limousine far enough behind to make the experience of slavery more deeply and personally meaningful to herself, more power to her. I am sure it helped her performance in her current movie adaptation of Toni Morrison's slave-era novel, "Beloved."

Media interest in slavery happens to be on its biggest upswing since the mania that surrounded Alex Haley's "Roots" in the 1970s. First there was Steven Spielberg's movie "Amistad," about a real slave rebellion. Then there's "Beloved," which came out at the same time as the book and PBS-TV series "Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery."

Ira Berlin, a historian and University of Maryland, College Park, professor, also has released "Many Thousands Gone," which describes slavery's first centuries in colonial America as "the foundation on which the social order rested." Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. also has announced his planned publication of the long-awaited "Encyclopedia Africana," which was envisioned a century ago by W.E.B. DuBois.

As America faces its most multiracial, multicultural century yet, this renewed interest in America's original sin could not come at a more appropriate time. Yet, this area of inquiry still has a ways to go in making sense out of slavery.

Watching the first episode of "Africans in America," for example, I was hooked, yet also frustrated. Technically superb and emotionally gripping, it was also intellectually frustrating. Strong as it is on the who, what, when, where and how of slavery, it was aggravatingly weak on the why of slavery.

Through documents, narratives and compelling individual profiles, it showed quite persuasively how the first blacks arrived in the colonies as indentured servants, just as many European whites did. Many earned their freedom. Some bought land and employed servants of their own, black and white.

One law at a time

Unequal treatment and eventually full-blown slavery came one incident, one law and one state at a time, beginning ironically in the North. Massachusetts in 1641 became the first English colony to recognize slavery.

Why, given the choice, did white Americans, unlike, say, white Canadians, choose to draw stark legal lines between the races long before it was in the economic interests of whites to do so?

The answer, I suspect, is racism. That's a touchy subject to today's Americans, as illustrated by last year's fuss over whether the nation should apologize for slavery. Yet, if we don't deal candidly with the horrors and the banality of racism in this nation's past, we can only move blindfolded into this nation's future.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/27/98

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