Nation's painful past emerges into light

Slavery: A shift toward the center of public and scholarly attention could help reverse "process of intentional forgetting."

June 20, 1999|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

For most of the 134 years since the last slaves were freed, the history of human bondage has been pushed to the margins of American memory.

But now, as if the dam built by white guilt and black pain has begun to give way, this terrible chapter in the nation's past has become the focus of widespread fascination. Slavery suddenly seems to be under scrutiny everywhere -- in the blossoming of black genealogy on the World Wide Web; in an unprecedented outpouring of books, films and CD-ROMs; in the popularity of slavery memorabilia; in celebrations of emancipation and new pride in slave ancestry.

Thousands are expected to gather in New York City on July 3 for a ceremony launching a "Middle Passage Monument" -- a wave-shaped aluminum sculpture -- to be lowered into the Atlantic on the route of millions of Africans 'forced journey to slavery or death. Juneteenth, a commemoration of the day -- June 19, 1865 -- that word of freedom finally reached Texas, was marked yesterday in dozens of cities, including Baltimore.

Colonial Williamsburg, which for its first 50 years ignored slavery altogether except for euphemistic references to "servants," has chosen "Enslaving Virginia" as the central theme of its programs this year.

A group led by former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder is raising money for a slavery museum and research center at Jamestown, Va., on the lines of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Cincinnati's museum documenting the Underground Railroad is expected to open in 2003.

Ripples becoming a wave

"All these little ripples are beginning to make one big wave," says Pat Bearden, 57, a retired Chicago teacher and president of an exclusive new society: To join, you must prove you are descended from a slave. The International Society of Sons and Daughters of Slave Ancestry is building a genealogical database and collecting oral histories and has created a traveling exhibit of photographs of former slaves.

"Something fundamental is happening," says Orlando Bagwell, the Baltimore-bred documentary filmmaker who produced last fall's PBS television series on slavery, "Africans in America." "As a nation, while we're not eager to open a discussion of race, we're troubled that race remains an issue. We know something's wrong. And slavery is the obvious area that has never been adequately addressed."

Bagwell recalls the fleeting presentation of slavery at Blessed Sacrament, the Baltimore school where he was one of a small number of black students in the early 1960s. "I didn't feel that slavery was necessarily seen by the teacher as a bad thing," he says.

While African-Americans are leading the new examination of slavery, some white descendants of slave owners are joining the movement to face squarely one of the great tragedies of U.S. history. They are learning something obscured by textbooks' distortion, and, more recently, by Black History Month tokenism: Slavery is white history, too.

"I think a lot of white Americans are surprised to find how central slavery was in our history," says David Brion Davis, an eminent slavery historian who directs a new slavery research center at Yale University. "For a lot of ordinary Americans, white and black, it's a period of discovery and, to some degree, of shock."

When the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition recently assembled a jury at Yale to award a $25,000 prize for the best book of last year on slavery, the judges were presented with 86 titles. "I'm sure that's a record," Davis said.

University of Maryland historian Ira Berlin wrote one of those books, "Many Thousands Gone," an account of the first two centuries of slavery, and co-edited another, "Remembering Slavery," the reminiscences of the last living former slaves, recorded by folklorists in the 1930s and '40s.

For Berlin, the shift of slavery toward the center of public and scholarly attention is long overdue. It was no accident that the founding fathers owned slaves, he says; nor was the glaring contradiction of their demands for liberty from Britain lost on them.

"You cannot be interested in American history and not be interested in slavery," he says. "It sits there right in the middle of things. You can't deal with the overwhelming matter of race without dealing with slavery."

How to `deal with' slavery

But what does it mean, exactly, to "deal with" slavery? Slavery scholars say that at a minimum it means forthright public education, with the facts of slavery given a central place in school curricula and perhaps in a national museum. Many African-Americans call for an official apology from the government. Some believe that monetary reparations should go to the descendants of slaves.

Compensation for historical injustice has become a familiar notion, whether for Japanese-Americans interned during World War II or Jews exploited as slave labor in Nazi Germany.

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