Monday, September 01, 2008

Should We Apologize for Slavery?

Should America apologize for slavery?

The question came up on an American Airlines flight from Nashville to Dallas two weeks ago. I was reading the September-October issue of Sojourners, a liberal Christian magazine, and my seatmate was reading over my shoulder. We were both taken with a letter to the editor that opposed such an apology.

“She makes a good point,” the woman next to me in the middle seat said. “I wasn’t alive during slavery, and my grandparents didn’t come to this country until the twentieth century, so I really had nothing to do with it. Why should I have to apologize for something I didn’t do?”

“I agree,” I said. “I had nothing to do with slavery either. Of course neither myself nor my parents or grandparents were here when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, so I guess I shouldn’t take any pride in that either. And while I can opt out of having to feeling bad about reducing African-Americans to 3/5ths of a person in the Constitution of the United States—I mean I wasn’t there, it wasn’t my idea—I guess I can’t celebrate the genius of the document or the Bill of Rights that followed it.”

I tried to say this with a straight face, but, frozen facial muscles or not, my voice betrayed me.

“Sarcasm is not an argument,” the woman said.

“True enough,” I said. “But if I think about it I have enough to be sorry for.”


“Well, my grandparents, parents, and I were in this country during segregation, the reign of terror perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan, Vietnam, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments inflicted on black men, the assignations of King and Kennedy, the breaking of treaties with the American Indians, the rape of the Constitution by George W., the terrorizing of Americans by McCarthy in the fifties and Cheney today. And that’s just off the top of my head.”

She was not convinced. “I was alive during segregation but I didn’t discriminate against blacks, so I shouldn’t have to apologize. And I had nothing to do with McCarthy, and I think Bush and Cheney are the greatest Americans since Ronald Reagan, so there is nothing to apologize for there. In fact I had nothing to do with anything regarding blacks or Indians or poor people at all, so I resent the country apologizing on my behalf.”

“But you are willing to take credit for the good things the US has done, even though you personally had nothing to do with them?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“It’s not a question of why not, it is a matter of consistency. If you take credit for the good you had no hand in, you should take responsibility for the evil you had no hand in. All of it was and is being done in the name of the people of the United States, and, unless you plan to give up your citizenship, that means you.”

“No it does not. I’m an American.”

Somehow that non sequitor was supposed to end the conversation with my seatmate taking the gold in logic. And in her mind it did. I was happy just to have her lean the other way and let me get back to my magazine. But I admit to fantasizing about opening the emergency exit and letting gravity, for which this woman also had no responsibility, suck her to her doom.


Patti said...

I regrettably relate to the lady in the middle seat. I have heard this “sins of the father” theory many times and truly want to relate to it rather than wash the past off my hands. But there is something missing in my understanding. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that some in my family, had they had the chance, would be at the forefront of atrocity. I have always been on the late side of the compassionate learning curve myself, but compared to my family, I am the Dali Lama himself. I can not escape the past by denying it. Yet, I don’t know what to do with the guilt that buries me when I allow myself to travel that road.

You make a good point, Rami. If we brandish the good we need to accept the bad. I get that, it seems consistent. I know there is much to feel responsible for from the past. I just don’t know what to do with the burden that comes with feeling the pain of thousands of years of human interaction. Because we really can’t stop with just what the Americans did, ya know? If we follow this logic, our non-duality would suggest that we are responsible for all that has been done throughout history; both helpful and not. Right? For instance, while a group of people had slaves, another group started the underground railroad. Is there a balance in here somewhere? Maybe my lack of understanding of this issue is why tonglen seems like such a huge undertaking. How does one recover from philosophically taking on the sins of the world…no less inviting the resulting pain to take up residence?

How do I connect these dots?

Scott D said...

Rabbi Rami -- amazed at your quick wit. I like your "take the bad with the good" logic.

Patti -- I admire and relate to your attempt to think through the issue. I follow your logic that injustice goes back into time before 1619 (first Africans arrive in Jamestown). Our minds cannot understand nor our hearts carry such burden.

But I miss the next point. Can White Americans also "claim" the Underground Rail from a non-dual perspective? Explain more.

I prefer to approach the issue with smaller steps. One doesn't have to support full apology with reparation$ or reject it outright and claim no part in slavery's legacy.

We aren't responsible to overcome all of history in our one lifetimes. Reinhold Niebuhr says:
"Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love."

With this in mind, I choose to approach such situations sensitively. Like blaming a car-driver for global warming catastrophe, urging a resistant individual to accept a share of responsibility for US slavery is an unwinnable request.

Only when people feel comfortable they can be challenged to face the sting of death that accompanies a new idea.

So I'd listen to the lady in the middle seat for a bit. What does she find great about America? Who are her "role models" in this regard? What does she think America could improve on? What criticisms does she think unfair?

More on specifics about the legacy of slavery in a future post if interested.

AaronHerschel said...

The Government of the United States should indeed apologize for those atrocities committed by the Government of the United States. This is so obvious it's hardly worth a debate. The difficulty comes in when we start to assess our personal complicity in these atrocities. Thoreau went to jail (for a night) rather than pay taxes supporting the Mexican American war. It didn't stop the war, but it has to mitigate some of his guilt. I--like the woman in the middle seat--reject the implication that I'm somehow responsible for laws written and policy decisions made before I could breathe, much less vote, pay taxes, or protest. Conversely, I take credit for the ideals in the Declaration of Independence not because I wrote them, but because I affirm them and struggle to uphold them. This position is not without its problems, of course. By my own logic, I am complicit in the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, etc. I could have, but did not, register my disgust with these scandals in any tangible way beyond the occasional protest and a whole lot of complaining. I certainly did not commit any useful acts of civil disobedience. For that, I apologize.

Mike Smith and Rami Shapiro said...

Tonglen may be the key to personal healing in this regard. And it isn't to be undertaken lightly.

I won't go into the practice here, but I urge people to look into this aspect of Buddhist spirituality. I think Pema Chodren writes well about this. Patti, if you can suggest books or, even better, teachers, that one could check into, I think we would all benefit.

Patti said...

Hi Scott,
Thank you for responding. I love the Neibuhr quote. Very helpful.

You asked: But I miss the next point. Can White Americans also "claim" the Underground Rail from a non-dual perspective? Explain more.

It seems to me that non-dualism needs to come into this discussion. When it gets applied to our historic culpability than the separation between our slave-owning brother and us is but an illusion. We are all responsible. So my question to the readers here is; aren’t then we responsible for all that is done by our “not separate” fellow humans? I could be torturing the idea of non-duality here…and hopefully Rami will step in and put me on a better course. I hope I am wrong, because that burden can not be satisfied with “uh sorry folks.” Does this make any sense at all, or even come close to answering your question?

I was hoping you would get in on this conversation. You have written quite profoundly about this subject before and I hoped to be reminded of your ideas in a context that was not so personal to me as the military conversation of months past. What kind of action would be enough, so that there was no guilt over, say for instance, the recent wars?

All I have read about tonglen has been from your writings and some on-line info. I saw how it applied to this situation from a theoretical standpoint only. Frankly, it scares the hell out of me. I might pursue it in a group, but that is not something I would undertake alone. Why don't you tell us more! ;0)

AaronHerschel said...


To be honest, I'm not really interested in assuaging my guilt. This is probably a terribly unchristian position to take, but I feel my sins (and my guilt) are my own, and I'm resigned to them. I am, on the other hand, interested in social justice. Just what that is, and how best to pursue it, is a question you will have to ask yourself. No one else can answer it for you.

Patti said...

That is really interesting. You may have hit the nail on the head when you said “unchristian”. My guilt reaction could be due to my faith system. There truly is no resigning oneself to guilt in Christianity. We are told to "lay our guilt at the cross." and "there is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus." Moreover, if we carry guilt it is considered that we are not really accepting Jesus' forgiveness or understanding the purpose of his death. That is seriously bad mojo with churchy people. You are right, we dump guilt like the plague. You just accept it and carry on. Wow…do you have any idea how mind blowing that is? Thank you.

AaronHerschel said...


Accepting my guilt, or resigning myself to it, is certainly no easy task. It's just I feel I need to own the choices I make, and accept their consequences. I'm human, after all, and I cannot pretend to perfect innocence. Still, as the rabbi once wrote, many years ago, quoting somebody or other important: "repentance, prayer, and charity, will stem the stern decree."

Or, as another rabbi once said, "take up your cross and follow me." We can follow Jesus, or try to, but not without taking up the burden of our lives.

Jason said...

Scott - you left out the last line of the Neibuhr quote, and I think it's germane to this discussion:

"Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime,
Therefore, we are saved by hope.
Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
Therefore, we are saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone.
Therefore, we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own;
Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."