Africian-Americans in Maryland and elsewhere are seeking a formal apology for its painful legacy

February 25, 2007|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun Staff

Germany's president apologized to the Jews for the Holocaust.

Australians expressed regret for mistreating the Aborigine people.

The United States asked Japanese-Americans to forgive the country for forcing them into internment camps during World War II.

But despite repeated attempts, this country's elected officials have yet to formally apologize for 200 years of enslaving blacks and supporting the practice.

This year Maryland, along with Virginia and Missouri, could become the first officially sorry states.

"It's long past due for me," says Baltimore Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden. "As African-Americans we believe we are entitled to some courtesy and consideration, some acknowledgement that we have to serve in this awful capacity as second-class citizens."

Although some people don't see the point in seeking pardon for their ancestors' wrongdoings and others consider a resolution - particularly an apology without reparations - an empty gesture, others say such a statement, particularly coming from elected leaders who weren't pressured into it, would be both therapeutic and appropriate.

"I think it would be a very significant forward march for our state," says Stefan Goodwin, a former professor at Morgan State University who led a state commission that studied slavery's legacy in Maryland.

"It's not going to help one homeless person find a home and it's not going to stop one crime. But I think it will give people who feel especially targeted by slavery a sense that those in power empathize with their suffering and regret it."

The apology movement comes at a time that Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland history professor who has written a number of books on slavery, calls "a real renaissance" for the topic.

"It's getting more interest than anytime since the Civil War," he says, pointing to slavery documentaries on HBO and public television, movies like Manderlay, Amistad, and Beloved and even the recent opening of Baltimore's Reginald F. Lewis Museum.

"Many things that people thought were solved turned out not to be solved. Many of the solutions put in play to deal with race like affirmative action have been taken off the table for political reasons. ... All of that creates a sense of unease about race in American society and it manifests itself by turning back to this issue."

Berlin thinks a political apology for slavery would logically follow the artistic treatments of it and further demonstrate the country's ongoing effort to reconcile the horror and grapple with the racial unease left in its wake.

The desire for contrition is actually global, says Elazar Barkan, a Columbia University professor of international and public affairs and founding director of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation at Austria's Salzburg Seminar.

The most memorable example, in his mind, is German President Roman Herzog's emotional apology a decade ago to the Jewish people for crimes committed by the Nazis. Herzog made the address at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, wearing Jewish mourning clothes.

While apologies can stem either from the demands of victims or the guilt of perpetrators, each ends with commemoration of a past mistake and, Barkan says, the chance for a public conversation.

"You can't undo the past, but you can own up to it," the professor says. "We do it to make a declaration that we know what was wrong and we know what is right - an apology is step one in the process of coming to terms with one's tainted past."

Sen. Nathaniel Exum, sponsor of Maryland's apology resolution, doesn't think he's asking for much.

Just two little words, really, a statement from Maryland's leaders that he believes could help ease a legacy of pain and bad feelings. "We're sorry," the Prince George's County Democrat would like them to say - for the state's role in slavery.

"Has anyone ever apologized for an atrocity perpetrated on black folks in this country?" the senator asks. "The state has a connection to it. Many people are living off of the benefits of it.

"And no one is saying they're sorry."

Exum's resolution, just a few lines long, would have Maryland's legislature express "profound regret" for the state's role in slavery. Borrowing lines from the country's founding documents, it would also reaffirm the state's commitment to "the formation of a more perfect union among its citizens regardless of color, creed or race" and "the principle that all people are equal and equally endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Though the senator says he would rather have pushed for reparations, a tangible way to compensate African-Americans for slavery's damages, he says he was being practical. Legislation with money attached to it could hardly stand a chance, he felt, when the General Assembly has given apology bills, which are all but free, the cold shoulder a number of times.

Just last year, although the Senate passed Exum's resolution unanimously, it died in a House committee.

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