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Knowing Our History Without Repeating It

Knowing Our History Without Repeating It

The release of the video of the tasing and arrest of NBA player Sterling Brown –over a parking violation.

The Black Lives Matter movement.

A decision by National Football League owners to mandate that their players on the field stand for the singing of the national anthem.

We’d like to believe we have left slavery and its legacy behind. But I wonder, as I read these stories, how far behind we have left our tortured legacy. Can our past provide some kind of a roadmap for how we got here?

We don’t have to look too far back in American history to remember when slavery was, literally, a way of life for many. For Americans, our national history has at least one dividing line: before and after the Civil War. While there is debate over the reason that epic battle between the northern and southern states began, there is no question that the plight of black men, women and children slaves, and whether they would attain the freedom to live as citizens of the Republic, was central to it.

On September 22, 1863 in the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln declared that all the slaves in the states and territories that had rebelled against the Union were free.

As we know, that Proclamation didn’t address the situation of the slaves in the loyal border states, or the southern states that were by then under Union control.  It did underline the idea that the war for the Union was more than that: it was a battle for human freedom (it also announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy).

Though African-Americans were theoretically liberated, discrimination didn’t end with the end of the Civil War.  The struggle to be treated as fully equal in American society continued.

But as reprehensible as it was, slavery didn’t start with the battle between the Union and the Confederacy.  It’s as old as ancient Greece. Europeans used slave labor, and it was exported to the so-called New World. Until 1804, many of the northern states also had slaves.

Slavery continues today through the human trafficking routes that can be found here and abroad. Sadly, the desire to imprison and dehumanize others for profit is still a part of the human spirit.

A few lessons from the past immediately come to mind.

America wasn’t alone in it’s appalling lack of concern for the full humanity of our black brothers and sisters (though slavery wasn’t always aimed at people of color, that was certainly true in the United States).

It’s worth reflecting on what in our nature leads one group to do that to another one.

Are there actions we still need to take to learn from our collective past?   What is the legacy of slavery?

Questions about the legacy of slavery keep popping up (we’re currently arguing over whether NFL players should have to stand for the national anthem at games when on the field, as owners have recently decided) in one form or another.

Then there is the question of personal accountability and responsibility.

An acquaintance in my region does anti-racism training. He told me recently that people in the workshops are sometimes reluctant to assume that they either have racist assumptions themselves or a responsibility for the current climate.  “I wasn’t a slave-owner,” they tell him.

It’s worth taking a hard look at our backgrounds and how they may shape our perspectives.

If nothing else, our history may sensitize us to other injustices going on around us, from poverty to human trafficking to unfair housing practices and abuse of the earth. It’s a warning that there are shadows in our collective lives – and that we ignore them at our peril.

At the same time, the outlook isn’t all gloom and doom.  Abolitionists spoke out against slavery before and during the Civil War, helping move African-American families and individuals to freedom. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s produced many heroic men and women determined to remedy the wounds of slavery.

Around the country, even now, there are organizations dedicated to helping those who are victimized by human trafficking. Though the shadows of slavery persist, we are also aware of the lights that shine in that darkness, and of the difference men and women of hope, faith and vision have made in moving us forward, even if the pace seems slow and the road hard.

That is the blessing of memory.

This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Evans is a freelance writer, columnist and mother of two young adults. Her work has been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Religion News Service, LNP Media Inc., the National Catholic Reporter/Global Sisters Report and many other media outlets.

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