Getting “People” Talking about Slavery

I was listening to the Slate Political Gabfest “The Amabots and Amholes Edition.” I’d really encourage you to go listen to the episode.

Political Gabfest Symposium

I really enjoy the Political Gabfest. They, or perhaps more broadly Slate, are hosting the Slate Academy : The History of American Slavery. The Gabfest describe this symposium event as “how do we get americans to talk honestly about slavery?”

I’m totally intrigued by this, especially since the Smithsonian will be helping with hosting.

caf-1940.William H. Johnson

In turn, I want to point out that Americans, people, have been talking about slavery because in fact black people are people.

Black people as American people

Very well I could be nitpicking because this is something I just dealt with recently. I just went through my mother’s belongings and found a photo of my grandparents with her at her wedding. Every time I talk about my grandfather I am talking about slavery because my grandfather was raised as a share cropper. His uphill-both-ways stories were quite common while he was alive and they always included the fact that he had to walk uphill-both-ways because as a young black boy he didn’t receive busing to school unlike white children.


So I would like to be clear: black people as people are talking about slavery quite honestly. We talk regularly about the effects, longstanding, of slavery and these conversations have a real human element to them.

My mother’s housemate told me that my mother often joked about race. My mother apparently said that the real difference between white people and black people was that black people were always seeking the Holy Grail of hair products while white people settled into their comfortable Head & Shoulders routine. My mother definitely had the hair product hoard to give credence to her theory of difference. Her housemate, white, laughed about this, commented on how he could see the work my mother put in to turn her natural hair into relaxed hair. Inside the compliment and my mother’s comment was a recognition that white people don’t have to put in so much effort, the same commentary Melissa Perry has talked about.

And we can pull this all back to dreds, to the slavery origin of the term. To the way slaves were forced to abandon natural hair styles and were removed from a historic connection to black hair care.

White Silence / White Violence

So who isn’t talking about slavery? White Americans. Who are not the only kind of Americans.

Perhaps also Latina and Asian Americans have not been talking about slavery in quite the same way as black americans, but still I think that Latina and Asian Americans talk candidly about their families’ experiences of unpaid labor with immigration and internment as they’ve experienced them. But I hardly think that was the intention of the phrasing, to focus on Latina and Asian Americans solidarity with Black Americans.

Getting American People to talk about slavery quietly translates to getting White American People to talk about slavery.

And I think that part of this process of creating honesty is to honestly say that some of us have been talking about this. Have you watched a Key and Peele skit recently? We’ve been talking, joking, singing, yelling about these issues for years. 

Photo on 12-10-14 at 12.56 PM #4

Part of white privilege and white violence has been the privilege of silence and ignorance. The sense of entitlement that one doesn’t need to be educated on these issues – that sense of entitlement has to be dismantled to create honesty. Because the entitlement also puts the responsibility of black advocates to take on the work of education, rather than other political action. And also places on black people the responsibility of reinventing the wheel and carry the weight in order to placate and educate white people who drag their feet and lay down their burdens.

Talk Honestly about Privilege

Having mentioned privilege, I feel that I must point out that I don’t think that talking honestly about slavery will make much difference to white people.  Now, I do have some white friends (hello!) and many white classmates.

Based on the conversations I have had with both advocated and simple bystanders on these issues, I’ve found that most white people didn’t experience slavery. Their grand parents weren’t slaves nor did they own slaves. Perhaps they never really interacted with black people. These kids may have attended a nice school with few or no black students, glossing over American history to take the more prestigious AP World History before their summer trips. When I bring up slavery, these young people point out: How could I have anything to do with this? I don’t hate black people! My parents didn’t own slaves!

White Americans are completely insulated from these issues of race and think that the issues of slavery have been dead and closed for a long time. And this insulation allows them to continue to benefit without facing the violence that allows the benefits.

I have also found that the conversations that continue begin with topics that are alive and familiar. For example, pointing out that the reason they have been insulated ties into the violence of maintaining segregation. Twilight Zone, a familiar show filled with white faces, moves the conversation to Twilight Towns, a terrorism targeting black people. I ask them about how their grand parents got a house. I ask them about the entitlement they have about loans and the Reagan protection of the middle class. I then mention that my grandparents didn’t qualify for these loans on the basis of both race and the locations they wished to live. As much as I hear about the joy of their communities, absent of black people, I tell them about the Mitchel’s experience of black communities.

I hope to build a realization that black people are people, not erased or forgotten. I hope that sharing our stories allow us to build an understanding of the American experience, that our experiences include the violence faced due to racism. As also my mother said, racism is just as American as apple pie. And white Americans need to be honest about the benefits reaped by only taking the pie rather than the hits that go with it.


So let’s sit down, have a tea and talk about it.


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