On a day to forgive, a few losers choose to forget

September 30, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

I WAS TEMPTED to stare into the video camera of the bigot across Prince George Street and hold my finger and my thumb in the shape of an L on my forehead. But this was supposed to be a day of forgiveness and healing, and I didn't want to set the guy off.

He was one of about a dozen losers who showed up in Annapolis yesterday morning with signs mocking the "Slavery Reconciliation Walk" on the anniversary of Kunta Kinte's arrival in America.

All white guys, of course.

One, dressed in a T-shirt, held with each hand signs that said, "Kill Dem Racist Whitemans" and "Whiteys Be Racist Devils."

Another guy, possibly someone's grandpa, held a sign that said, "Get Over It."

Another sign said, "First You Have To Care" (presumably about the impact of slavery), and he told me he didn't.

About six others - your basic tattooed skinhead types - each held a sign that said, "You Are Entering A White Guilt Zone."

One of the protesters, a white-haired man in a red shirt with suspenders holding up blue jeans, identified himself as Lovell "Art" Wheeler, the alleged white supremacist who last year spent four months in jail after police found 80 pounds of gunpowder, 14 rifles, eight handguns, about 100 other firearms and thousands of rounds of ammunition in his Highlandtown rowhouse.

"You fellas in the media are under a lot of pressure," Wheeler told me, apparently thinking I worked for one of the many television news operations covering yesterday's event. "Every station manager in the country is on the CIA payroll."

As the Reconciliation Walk moved through the streets of Annapolis - for part of the time with young men and women, all of them white, clad in chains and yokes - Art Wheeler and the other white guys with the signs kept pace.

It was hard to ignore them.

And yet so many participants in the Reconciliation Walk did just that.

They seemed to be on a kind of spiritual pilgrimage, and the guys with the signs just a roadside distraction.

But as we walked behind the procession, from City Dock to Randall Street to Prince George, I found myself staring at the protesters.

What a tired, day-old lot this was.

They could have been doing so many productive things with their Wednesday morning - volunteering to teach the illiterate to read, cooking meals for elderly neighbors, reading passages from Roots on the Kunta Kinte anniversary.

Instead, here they were - fouling the tableau with their signs, protesting an earnest effort to keep the horrific epoch of slavery in the minds of Americans of the 21st century. As Leonard Blackshear, president of the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, put it: "Understanding slavery is ground zero for understanding racism in America today."

Of course, for the guys with the signs, this is infuriating nonsense.

According to them, and their lower-profile brethren who restrict their protestations to radio call-in shows and private commiserations, there is no racism in America today. To keep bringing up slavery is to keep alive the myth that the problems faced by African-Americans are somehow related to slavery's long-dissolved stain. Many whites are just plain sick of hearing about the middle passage; they resent its emphasis in history classes and dismiss it as political correctness.

Certain Annapolitans complained about the city's approval of the Reconciliation Walk. "Annapolis will be embarrassed," one of them groused at a hearing in July.

But there's nothing embarassing about acknowledging history - or for kneeling for a few minutes in the modern world and asking forgiveness of those who were enslaved in the old one.

I'm glad I attended the Slave Reconciliation Walk; I wish my kids could have been there.

It was enlightening and interesting, like being among a troupe of storytellers.

The organizers of this event presented fascinating history, explaining how 18th-century Annapolis was used as a port of arrival in the slave trade; how William Paca, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, had owned slaves here; how Roger Taney, the Maryland-born chief justice had written the Supreme Court decision upholding slavery, and how the state erected a large statue on the State House grounds honoring Taney within a decade of his death.

We were presented all of this, asked to acknowledge it and understand it, then offer our hearts in forgiveness for it. It was a bit like praying to ghosts, good for consciousness and conscience. The organizers of the walk declared Annapolis "The First City of Healing," and that seemed to be the feeling that prevailed - even with the angry men with their signs on the other side of the street. They were outnumbered completely yesterday, and someday - Lord, hear our prayer - they'll be completely gone.

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