Moral dilemmas: Atonement:
By Dr. Maxine Thompson
“Why do you feel that you have to keep bringing up slavery?” a coworker asked my daughter, Tamaira, who was 32 at the time, during one of the many heated debates, which flared up in her office before Barrack Obama’s history-making Presidential election in 2008.
No surprise either, since her coworker’s sentiments have been expressed to me by many other Caucasian colleagues. What surprises, no appalls me, as an African American, is that white Americans feel that we keep bringing up slavery as if it’s not relevant. Now that’s what I find to be preposterous.
Truly, it is an insult to the 60 million or more people of African descent who died during the Middle Passage and because of the slave trade.
During the pre-election jitters, before Obama was first elected, the issue of race was probably more discussed on a public platform than ever before in American history. The past four years have been a testament to how racism has never gone away, even with the killing of Osama bin Laden, the bringing home of the troops, the saving of jobs, homes, etc., etc. President Obama has been more maligned than any other president, and the first president I’ve ever seen called by his last name and not his POTUS title.
But Black President or not, the specter of slavery still haunts this country, and will continue to do so until the ethical issues are addressed.
According to Dr. Claud Anderson’s book, Dirty Little Secrets About Black History, the slave trade originally began in Spain in 1517 with its infamous “Asiento de Negroes” (Negroes Enslavement Contract). The slave trade continued up until the early nineteenth century, and slavery continued until after the Civil War, when President Lincoln freed the slaves with the Proclamation of Emancipation.
Given the over three hundred years of bondage, not only did this institution of slavery give White America a five-generation financial leap ahead of the offspring of the slaves, it has cast a long-reaching shadow. The newly manumitted slaves were, for the most part, freed without the fulfillment of the forty acres and a mule allotment. Well, if racism is a race for the goods and services in this country, White America definitely has had the headstart.
Unlike the reparations which were given to the Japanese for their Interment during World War II, or the reparations given to the Jews for the Holocaust, or even the gaming casinos given to the Native Americans, there has never been any form of reparations given to African Americans. How is that ethical? And what’s more, no one is supposed to talk about it.
This is only a small part of the dirty little secret that has been swept under the rug, which Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Prize Winning (later Nobel Peace Prize winning) author, examined in her novel, Beloved.
What are the ethical implications of Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, and how does it impact us to this day?
The denial around our nation’s slave past reminds one of a particular alcohol treatment modality, wherein part of the intervention program involves addressing “The White Elephant in the middle of the room.” As such, this “Elephant in the Middle of the Room,” is the family alcoholic, who is never spoken about or confronted in the alcoholic’s dysfunctional family system. For example, the alcoholic parent can leave the phone in the freezer, and no one ever addresses this as abnormal behavior. It becomes part of the family’s “Dirty Little Secret,” or “dirty laundry” so to speak, which bit by bit, distorts the family’s view of reality.
Similarly, throughout the years, in America, race, racism, and slavery have become America’s “Dirty Little Secrets.” It is the elephant plopped right smack dab in the heart of our culture, which we do not talk about, and which, in effect, has distorted our view of reality.
Notwithstanding our first election of a Black president, or the OJ trials, we seldom talk about race until riots break out, lynchings take place, or flagrant police brutality are flashed on the news. Why don’t we talk about it? This is one reason, America has never come to terms with racism as witnessed by the “black out” in our history books.
Let’s examine this same social phenomena, which grew out of slavery. I’ve chosen Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, because it captures all of the pathos, the moral ambiguities, and the dehumanization surrounding slavery.
And trust and believe, the novel, Beloved, was not initially embraced by mainstream America. According to article in the New York Times by DENNIS HEVESI, (April 1, 1988), “Ms. Morrison’s work had been at the center of a controversy last fall when it failed to win the prestigious National Book Award, and 48 black writers wrote an open letter in January protesting that Ms. Morrison had never won that award or a Pulitzer.” http://alturl.com/6ubo4
In 1998, when Oprah produced the movie version of Beloved, it didn’t do well at the box office, and small wonder.
Unlike the TV mini-series, Roots, in 1976, which was celebrated and embraced by mainstream, the movie, Beloved was not well received by the public. Not only did it show slavery in an unfavorable light, it dealt with a moral ambiguity—infanticide.
Morrison based the fictional story on a real life slave, Margaret Garner, who killed her young child rather than see her go back to slavery. Quiet as it was kept, although it wasn’t often documented, many slave mothers aborted, smothered or killed their babies rather than see them enslaved, but this case made the newspapers of that day.
For years, whenever I re-read Beloved, I always loved the scene where Paul D examined and kissed the “chokecherry tree” on Sethe’s back, scars, which I assumed came from the whiplash. I saw this scene as a gentle show of love between a man and woman who had been denied normal affection, but in researching, I read that the maze of scars on Sethe’s back resulted from an operation Schoolteacher performed upon her in an effort to determine how much she resembled an animal. It is a mark made by people who believed her to be an animal. How horrific!
But the most horrendous crime of slavery which haunts us to this day, is the fracturing of the black family.
In Sethe’s case she was raised on a communal farm, not in the same cabin where her mother, who worked with the indigo dye, lived, and was later hung for sedition. Before her mother’s hanging, though, Nan, one of the handicapped women, who took care of the little children, told the child Sethe this about her mother. “I am telling, you, small girl Sethe.” She related the story to Sethe (whose name means replacement from Seth in the Bible, who replaced Abel, the brother, who Cain killed) that her mother and Nan were together from the Sea (The Middle Passage). Both women were taken up many times by the crew. (Raped). “She threw them all away but you. Without names, she threw them. You she gave the name of the black man. She put her arms around him. The others she did not put her arms around. Never.” (Beloved, (p.72.)
This was the world’s largest rapefest, sanctioned by law, ever in American history. To protect themselves, slave women aborted or smothered their babies that were often the offspring of these rapes, so there was resistance on the part of women.
“God take what he would and he did and he did. (Beloved page. 23) Is how Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, referred to what she called “the nastiness of life”–the selling off of the last three of her seven children who were sold away from her. She was only able allowed to keep, Halle, her eighth child, who later bought her freedom..
Just imagine the dissociation that came from having children taken from the slave mothers To this day, these lines haunt me. “Anybody Baby Sugss knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, bought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized. So Baby’s eight children had six fathers.”
Yet, when women have children today with different fathers and are unmarried, the same society who instituted this form of forced mating, scorns the woman.
So how could people coming out of slavery reconcile their present to their horrific past?
In answer to this, Toni Morrison introduced what she called a “fixing ceremony,” in Beloved, as a way to atone for the slaves’ pain and replace that past with some joy. Just to name a few of the unimaginable atrocities, within the story, Sethe has been raped and forced to murder her child, Paul D has been enclosed in an underground cubicle prison, Stamp Paid had to sell his wife as a sex toy, and Baby has lost 7 of her eight children to being sold off.
In one of the most powerful restoration scenes in literature, to fix all the pain and loss, Baby Suggs would call the families to the clearing. (Beloved, page 87.) “Let the children come!” she implored. “Let the mothers hear you laugh,” she told them…The adults looked on and could not help but smiling.”
Next, Baby Suggs would call the men, who had been stripped of anything resembling manhood, and tell them, “Let your wives and your children see you dance.” (Beloved, p. 87.)
But in the final summation, Baby Suggs told them, “More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” (Beloved, p. 89)
Even the twisted concept of family also pervades the novel. Most of the slaves had been ripped apart from their families at an early age, and there is little hope in discovering what is left of their families. The consequences of this type of separation can be seen in Sethe, who is possessive of her children, and Paul D, who is determined not to love anything too much.
There is a moral ambiguity interlaced throughout the story. Morrison raises the question was Sethe right to kill her child, rather than see her go back to slavery, and the answer, although it is ambiguous, is “No.” Why? Because, as a result, she lost the support of their small Black community, and in the end, she did need community.
To this day, many Blacks suffer with low-self-esteem, intra racial hatred and black-on-black crime, which is part of the slave legacy of division between light-skinned, dark-skinned, field negroes and house negroes, that The Willie Lynch letter encouraged
This speech was delivered by Willie Lynch on the bank of the James River in the colony of Virginia in 1712. Lynch was a British slave owner in the West Indies. He was invited to the colony of Virginia in 1712 to teach his methods to slave owners there. The term “lynching” is derived from his last name.
So what is the answer? Many Black intellectuals feel there needs to be a debriefing from what has been termed as the “Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome.” Many feel the real medicine is in reconnecting with our past, with our roots. Through affirmations, one can honor and communion with the ancestors. In order to debunk years of negative programming and negative portrayals in the media, it is important that African Americans affirm ourselves holistically.
The only ethical solution for a modern-day fixing program would be reparations. Reparations would not just be financial, there would be a psychological debriefing from slavery. This would involve therapy, if necessary. There would be an acceptance of the truth of our slave legacy. Just as there are whites who are in denial as to our slave heritage, there are blacks who do not feel that slavery has had an affect on them.
Unlike the line in the movie, “Who Shot Liberty Valance?” where the character says, “When the lie becomes legend, Print the legend,” we will stop denying America’s slave past, face it, and eventually, heal from it.
Take a stand against racism. Vote for President Obama!