There was a certain discontentment among people who had once owned motorcars and bathrooms and eaten meat twice daily, at having to walk ten or twenty miles a day, bathe once a week, along with fifty others, in a long trough, get meat only twice a week—when they got it—and sleep in bunks, a hundred in a room. Yet there was less rebellion than a mere rationalist like Walt Trowbridge, Windrip’s ludicrously defeated rival, would have expected, for every evening the loudspeaker brought to the workers the precious voices of Windrip and Sarason, Vice-President Beecroft, Secretary of War Luthorne, Secretary of Education and Propaganda Macgoblin, General Coon, or some other genius, and these Olympians, talking to the dirtiest and tiredest mudsills as warm friend to friend, told them that they were the honored foundation stones of a New Civilization, the advance guards of the conquest of the whole world.
They took it, too, like Napoleon’s soldiers. And they had the Jews and the Negroes to look down on, more and more. The M.M.’s saw to that.
Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on.
I didn’t want to lie about who I was anymore, but I’d learn people wouldn’t accept a simple one- or two-word answer about who I was, either. Not talking about race isn’t an option any person of color in this country has ever had, in particular if it’s not clear what race you are. If it’s clear what race you are, you just get skipped an interrogation level. It’s always your responsibility to address your race’s stereotypes to ensure whoever’s asking that you aren’t like what they’ve heard. Be assured whatever they’ve heard is bad and you’ll be asked to answer for it. Political correctness? Not in my reality. Political correctness never kept a racist from calling me a racist name. It’s never kept anyone at a bar from dehumanizing me because I’m not their nostalgic ideal of an “American.” It’s never saved me from being reminded I’m an “Other.” Political correctness isn’t about depriving someone of their freedom. It’s about giving someone the same inalienable rights that all “real Americans” have—the right to not be hassled, insulted, or assaulted because someone thinks they’re different. In other words, it’s about protecting an American’s most cherished freedom: the right to be left alone.
Drink more than two beers in a bar and you’ll hear PC sound its bugle retreat: I don’t mean to be racist, but . . .
…If it’s unclear to someone what race I am, I’m treated to a series of interrogative questions, each more invasive, until it’s clear what stereotype best suits them. Every month or so, when I don’t immediately explain my name and reveal my ethnic background—the POC version of name, rank, serial number—I have some version of this conversation. Here’s this month’s latest variation:
“So, where are you from?” he asks.
“I live here in town.”
“No, I mean, where are you from before here?”
“Vermont? No, where are your parents from?”
“I mean, before Los Angeles?”
“They always lived there.”
“Why are you being so difficult? What are you?!?”
Something’s bugging me. I wanted to ask Uncle Carlos, but I couldn’t for some reason. Daddy’s different though. While Uncle Carlos somehow keeps impossible promises, Daddy keeps it real with me. “You think the cops want Khalil to have justice?” I ask. Thump-thump-thump. Thump . . . thump . . . thump. The truth casts a shadow over the kitchen—people like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right.
Let me tell you, most guys who get punched in the face deserve it. I would say maybe eighty percent of them fully deserve what’s coming to them. Maybe the other ten percent could’ve used a good tongue lashing instead. This guy was one of those people I wished I could’ve taken out myself. Every second word out of his mouth was faggot and he’d uttered a variety of rotating racial slurs. He smelled like a decomposing liver.
For most Indians the only special place in front of a library might be a heating grate or a piece of sun-warmed cement but that’s an old joke and I used to sleep with my books in piles all over my bed and sometimes they were the only thing keeping me warm and always the only thing keeping me alive.
Jesse WildShoe died last night and today was the funeral and usually there’s a wake but none of us had the patience or energy to mourn for days so we buried Jesse right away and dug the hole deep because Jesse could fancydance like God had touched his feet. Anyhow we dug the hole all day and since the ground was still a little frozen we kept doing the kerosene trick and melting the ice and frost and when we threw a match into the bottom of the grave it looked like I suppose hell must look and it was scary. There we were ten little Indians making a hell on earth for a fancydancer who already had enough of that shit and probably wouldn’t want to have any more of it and I kept wondering if maybe we should just take his body high up in the mountains and bury him in the snow that never goes away. Maybe we just sort of freeze him so he doesn’t have to feel anything anymore and especially not some crazy ideas of heaven or hell.
Clearly a much better set of options could be provided to African Americans—and poor people of all colors—today. As historian Lerone Bennett Jr. eloquently reminds us, “a nation is a choice.” We could choose to be a nation that extends care, compassion, and concern to those who are locked up and locked out or headed for prison before they are old enough to vote. We could seek for them the same opportunities we seek for our own children; we could treat them like one of “us.” We could do that. Or we can choose to be a nation that shames and blames its most vulnerable, affixes badges of dishonor upon them at young ages, and then relegates them to a permanent second-class status for life. That is the path we have chosen, and it leads to a familiar place.
Who is more blameworthy: the young black kid who hustles on the street corner, selling weed to help his momma pay the rent? Or the college kid who deals drugs out of his dorm room so that he’ll have cash to finance his spring break? Who should we fear? The kid in the ’hood who joined a gang and now carries a gun for security, because his neighborhood is frightening and unsafe? Or the suburban high school student who has a drinking problem but keeps getting behind the wheel? Our racially biased system of mass incarceration exploits the fact that all people break the law and make mistakes at various points in their lives and with varying degrees of justification. Screwing up—failing to live by one’s highest ideals and values—is part of what makes us human.
The founders of Historians Against Slavery see themselves as being supported by ample scholarly precedents as well as by these counterpart organizations. Back in the 1960s outstanding scholars of American slavery and antislavery who [were] deeply influenced by the Civil Rights Movement such as Kenneth Stampp, John Hope Franklin, Winthrop Jordan, Benjamin Quarles, and Gerda Lerner initiated a major re-writing of U.S. history that placed the problem of chattel slavery and its legacies where we find them today—as central components of the American experience.
This article argues that contemporary antislavery activism in the United States is programmatically undermined and ethically compromised unless it is firmly grounded in a deep understanding of the African American past. Far too frequently those who claim to be “the new abolitionists” evince no interest in what the original abolitionist movement might have to teach them and seem entirely detached from a U.S. history in which the mass, systematic enslavement of African Americans and its consequences are dominating themes. As a result contemporary antislavery activism too often marginalizes the struggle for racial justice in the United States and even indulges in racist ideology. In an effort to overcome these problems, this article seeks to demonstrate in specific detail how knowledge of the African American past can empower opposition to slavery as we encounter it today