I offer this letter as an invitation to begin a dialogue about a matter that is extremely sensitive but absolutely necessary, if we are to move forward.
Our progress as a nation is directly linked to our willingness to face this issue head on, and to do so respectfully and honestly. That subject is racism.
I am moved to talk about this subject because this month marks the 400-year commemoration of the arrival of the first Africans in America in 1619. Also, in 2017, Congress has enacted House Bill 1242, the “400 Years of African-American History Commission Act.”
I felt that it was befitting of this moment to bring attention to this little-known piece of legislation as well as an attempt to begin this critical conversation.
Before I begin, I’d like to share a few words that I learned 40 years ago from a poem by Jean Claude Toran.
America, 400 years has come to past and deep within my soul are some questions that I must ask.
I did not come to spoil this great and happy party, and I beg for your forgiveness if my laugh is not loud and hardy.
But I will make myself at home and I will not be bowed, for I would not be here at all, America, had it not been for your forefathers, 400 years ago!
With that as my introduction, I will start this conversation.
Deep within my soul are some questions I must ask.
My questions force me to examine the historical context of being here as a by-product of my ancestors arriving on the shores of Point Comfort, Va., in August 1619. That moment marks a painful, but significant, time in America’s history, when Africans were taken against their will, transplanted and committed to lives as slaves.
I firmly believe that if we are going to have a genuine conversation about racism in America, we all must be prepared to acknowledge the truths of our dark history.
Slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person so Southern states could have a third more seats in Congress. This gave Southern states representation to vigorously defend their preferred way of life, exploiting slaves as economic tools. And because slaves were considered three-fifths of a person, they were deemed nothing more than mere property that their owners could treat as they saw fit.
This mindset of superiority led to some of the most horrific treatment ever inflicted upon human beings. The psychological and physical trauma that slaves endured has been internalized generationally by their descendants and the collateral damage is virtually impossible to measure. But that part of this conversation will be saved for a later time.
Not all colonists believed in or agreed with slavery. Many, mainly in the Northern states, considered slavery to be sinful and argued that slaves were equal to them as human beings in the eyes of God and should be free. But many Southerners rejected the abolitionists’ position.
Slave owners argued that slavery was a “positive good” for masters and slaves alike, and that it was explicitly sanctioned by God. Religious and political leaders of that time deliberately misinterpreted the Bible to defend their right to practice slavery. Regrettably, today some religious and political leaders continue to misrepresent this myth to justify the continuation of institutionalized racism.
Because of the deeply divided ideological beliefs regarding slavery, this nation experienced the worst episode of bloodshed on American soil, the Civil War. This war so divided the nation that fathers fought against sons and brothers against brothers. Approximately 620,000 soldiers died in this war, including African Americans.
So I ask, “What price must we still pay, America?”
Despite the debilitating effects that African Americans have suffered because of slavery, we are still committed to living up to this nation’s creed as proclaimed in the Constitution, “We the People of the United States … ”
The 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act celebrates the contributions of African Americans since our forced arrival in this country. And there have been hundreds upon hundreds of notable achievements, culminating in the election of the first African American president in 2008.
Some of you may wonder, “Why does this matter? We don’t have slaves now. That’s all in the past.”
With all due respect I disagree. To your point, there are no actual slave masters physically controlling the lives of black folks today.
But every public policy — at every level of government — that limits or prevents people of color from benefiting from the possibilities of this country is rooted in the vestiges of white supremacy, i.e., slavery.
Gerrymandering voting districts; rolling back provisions of the Voting Rights Act; enabling the mass incarceration of people of color; creating housing regulations designed to prevent people of color from buying affordable homes; failing to enact a comprehensive immigration bill; trying to eradicate Planned Parenthood, which especially benefits marginalized communities of color ... the list could go on.
So, I will end where I began: “Deep within my soul are some questions I must ask.”
America, can we talk?