Think Anew, Act Anew

observations and opinion

A house that was built by slaves

First Lady Michelle Obama with daughters Malia and Sasha sled in the snow on the South Lawn of the White House 3/2/09. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

The United States has accomplished great things but it has yet to fully admit to, or account for, its vast crime against humanity.  Where is the monument to American Slavery?


If you can climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, on a Spring day, up at the top you will often find a gaggle of teenagers clustered together, staring down. They’re surrounding the marker – embedded in stone – where Martin Luther King Jr stood during his “I have a dream” speech in early 1963. It can be hard to get near the spot, thanks to the teens.

From there, of course, you come face to face with Abraham Lincoln: gigantic, serene, becalmed and calming, overtly godlike in his stone visage. He would probably have been embarrassed by it, had he lived. Of course, he didn’t live. That’s one of the reasons why he and MLK are remembered up at the top of those stairs.

To your right (Lincoln’s left) is a vaulting wall and on its marble is inscribed the text of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. Abe used that speech to re-state his theory of the Civil War – that it was a purgative and punitive cleansing of America’s sin of slavery:

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

It is important to read those words for what they say. They may be poetry but they are also stark. Lincoln tells Americans that they must be resigned to suffer, for as long and as hard as its slaves suffered, to pay for the crime of enslaving Africans.

Such a grim, harsh reckoning is not a modern concept – we recoil from arbitrariness and view “collective punishment” as unjust. There is also the problem of time: aren’t the truly guilty all dead? Do you know anyone who cracked the whip, clamped on the shackle or pocketed profits from the slave trade? Of course you do not.

No, the guilty, like the slaves, are all dead. Who might be justly punished today, for the sins of their fathers? What crime is there in being born? Not even the most ardent advocate of African American interests, not even those who call for reparations, would think it just to imprison or kill the descendants of slave owners.

It may be that Lincoln was wrong in this assertion that America would pay, and pay, and pay for the sins of slavery; after all, these kinds of epic offences seldom attract the kind of “equal justice” envisaged by the sixteenth President. For example, the wholesale theft and near-genocidal extermination of native American land, peoples and societies (both in the U.S and in Canada) has gone effectively unpunished (and unpaid for).

Not much has changed since the natives were rousted and imprisoned on reservations. More recent society-level crimes are simply denied (the Turks pretend they didn’t slaughter the Armenians) or uncomfortably dodged (the Japanese still haven’t apologized for their robust awfulness in the Pacific). Avoidance still seems the norm, when it comes to a society acknowledging and seeking forgiveness for, its sins.

There are two notable exceptions. One is in South Africa, where the multi-generational policy of Apartheid and its oppressive police tactics, spawned a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring together both halves of the racially-torn land. This imperfect instrument reflected the character of the country’s unifying leader, Nelson Mandela, whose decades of imprisonment transformed him into a purifying avatar of forgiveness. South Africa is hardly cured of its troubles but it is to be respected for its efforts.

So too has Germany tried to face its sins. In the 1930s, the Germans famously descended into modern barbarism, twinning their talented proficiency with a crazy death cult called Nazism. The result was a Second World War and, embedded inside that multi-national conflict, the systematic factory murder of millions of targeted peoples (primarily Jews).

Since the Nazi regime (and much of Germany) was destroyed, the German people have rebuilt their country into an admirably successful free market democracy. And they have done so while adhering to a strict program of public repentance: generations of Germans have been taught about Nazism and the Holocaust, with simplicity and clarity. We did this, we are capable of this and we must guard against this in ourselves and in others. This explains their public education program, their politics and more recently, their refugee policy.

Yet the United States has essentially dodged a proper accounting or accountability for slavery. No American President has apologized for slavery. The new African American history museum inevitably travels the road from slavery to Obama, but a museum is not a memorial. It is not a statement of accountability. Indeed, the closest thing to a national monument to slavery may well be the Lincoln Memorial and the words of the Great Emancipator himself, in his Second Inaugural.

But that may have changed on July 25, 2016. In a large Philadelphia hall packed with adoring and optimistic Democrats, First Lady Michelle Obama gave one of the best speeches of the convention (full props to Khizer Khan). The FLOTUS said nice things about Hillary Clinton of course, but also explained her optimism about the United States:

“That is the story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves — and I watch my daughters –- two beautiful, intelligent, black young women –- playing with their dogs on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters –- and all our sons and daughters -– now take for granted that a woman can be President of the United States. So don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again. Because this, right now, is the greatest country on earth.”

“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” You knew when Michelle Obama uttered that phrase, a shudder went through the multitudes listening. You heard it in the hall, perhaps in yourself. What is it like, to be a black woman raising your children, in “a house built by slaves”? Does terrible history haunt the hallways, do ghosts lurk in dark corridors? Do the basement stairs creak with the weight of chain worn by the slaves who laboured there? How uncomfortable is it, to live in such a house?

Those thoughts may have run through many minds that night, listening to the dignified First Lady. But another thought might soon form, if one permitted it: “isn’t every American living in a house a built by slaves?”

The answer to that of course, is “of course.” The whole history of America, its frailties and its tremendous success, is shaped by slavery. Slavery as it was for the enslaved; slavery as it was for the slave owner; slavery as a dark shadow on the thrilling liberty of the Revolution; slavery as it was for the bondsman, for the abolitionist; slavery as it was for the Confederate and for the Union soldier; slavery as it was for the freeman, for poor whites, for the segregationist, for the while supremacist: slavery as it became for the black separatist, for the charred ruins of inner city neighbourhoods; slavery as it survives in the stunted lives of those who live afraid to be black, afraid to be near blacks, afraid afraid afraid. Slavery as it is lived in the vast sea of prison concrete pooling out across America.

Every morning, every American wakes up in a house built by slaves. That doesn’t make every American “guilty” for slavery – no American is personally responsible for it, no more than the family that just left the White House or the people who just moved into it. The house built by slaves is an inheritance, a bequest merging wealth and poverty, pleasure and pain, righteousness and sin. Slavery was a crime against humanity, that damaged everyone involved in it – ravaging the souls of its beneficiaries as surely as the lives of its victims. Its imprint remains, a cut, a stain, a wound, a scar on the DNA of America.

Every American bears the mark of slavery, with varying degrees of recognition and grief. Many of them have chosen to remain blind to the truth of their inheritance, a blindness which enables the wound to fester, unseen, undiscussed, untreated. It will be a struggle to make them see where they really are, who they really are. But it is a necessary struggle. A struggle that calls out for a monument.

There is a monument to George Washington. A monument to Jefferson. Both slave owners, for all their merits. There is a monument to FDR. A monument to MLK. There is a monument to World War II, to the Korean War, to the disastrous Vietnam War. In time there will no doubt be monuments reminding us of the Iraq wars – the “war on terror.” There are statues aplenty. Should there not be a monument to slavery?

Yes, there should. There should be a place where Americans can go to confront the scar upon their citizenship, the injury that has hobbled, deformed and formed the United States as we know it. Americans need a landmark where they can go and confront the truth about themselves and their blessed land, that was also cursed. And there could be a simple sign to say “This place stands as a memorial to America’s original sin: slavery.”

But as I think on it, I realize that there is already a place. There is already a monument. It just needs to be named. It is old and familiar and has a broad green lawn where the sign can stand. It is the perfect monument to slavery, because it is a house that was built by slaves.


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This entry was posted on January 22, 2017 by in The U.S.A..
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