In America’s vicious argument over race, it was inevitable that the topic would ultimately turn to slavery.
We can fight as dirty as we want over the current state of race relations, but no one likes to venture back too far. The slavery story is too despicable, too painful, too shameful for a country that was founded on the concept of freedom.
So we have tiptoed around it for as long as we could, fearing that if we delved too deeply into that sordid part of American history, we might not emerge from it intact.
Our preconceived notions about slavery and its legacy are far too fragile to withstand a formidable challenge. As descendants of slaves and slave masters, Americans have long understood that.
Too often we have been quick to dismiss the Southern campaign that followed the Emancipation Proclamation to rewrite history and provide the world a kinder, gentler description of slavery.
Kanye West certainly isn’t the first to broach the issue of slavery. In recent years, many have sought to perpetuate the myth that slavery wasn’t as bad as it might have seemed. But his recent suggestion that being enslaved for 400 years was a choice blacks made is particularly troubling coming from someone whose own ancestors likely were among them.
In 1936, Margaret Mitchell gave us the novel, “Gone With the Wind,” which painted slaves as dumb and obedient servants who were content singing and dancing on the plantation. But the lie didn’t end there.
In 2016, Donald Trump gave us the presidential campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” which reeks with undertones of white supremacy.
At a rally last year during his failed Republican bid for the U.S. Senate, someone asked former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore when America was last great.
“I think it was great at the time when families were united, even though we had slavery, they cared for one another,” he answered. “Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”
This kind of propaganda is not shocking coming from whites with their own agenda. It is another matter, though, when African-Americans buy into the lie that slavery has no impact on the current economic and social state of African-Americans.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, an African-American, wrote this in his 2015 dissent of gay marriage: “Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved.”
Obviously, Thomas had never visited Cape Coast Castle, the remains of the seaside fort in Ghana where slaves were kept before being placed on ships headed across the Atlantic.
Thomas clearly had not walked through the dark dungeon where the process of robbing blacks of their dignity and humanity began. He had not stood on the mounds of calcified feces and urine or touched lines etched on the wall depicting how high the waste once rose.
Had he seen this, surely he could not have written such a thing.
Ben Carson, head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, once referred to slaves as “immigrants.”
“There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less,” Carson said last year in an address to HUD employees.
I wonder whether Carson would have felt the same had he stood in the “Door of No Return,” the exit by which slaves were led from the dungeons to ships to begin their frightening journey?
Would he have felt the despair of the men, women and children who were ripped from their families, branded with hot irons and shackled, bound hundreds at a time, on the floor of a cramped room with little food, water or ventilation?
Had he looked from that arched doorway onto the vast ocean ahead, perhaps he would have realized that his ancestors were never immigrants.
Now comes Kanye West with a claim that is even more absurd.
“When you hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years? That sounds like a choice,” West said in an interview on TMZ Live. “You was there for 400 years, and it’s all of y’all.”
With his wealth and prestige, West could easily have traveled to Ghana to see for himself how the path of slavery charted a legacy for Africans living in America today. If he had bothered to research the history of his people, he would realize that while African-Americans still have a great deal of catching up to do, we have much to be proud of for having survived such a painful beginning.
He would not look at our history as a shackle that continues to bind us, but as a testament to our resolve, our courage and our endurance. He would understand that African-Americans are part of the natural fabric of this country because we built it, shed our blood for it and continue to sustain it. He would praise our people for their resilience and help us find strength in our failures.
He would know that the greatest tragedy of slavery isn’t necessarily that it happened, but that too many Americans fail to understand its legacy.