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A More Perfect Union Comes From Accounting For The Past

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A More Perfect Union Comes From Accounting For The Past


The Confederate markers continue to tumble — flags, statues, monuments. After Dylann Roof associated his alleged atrocity with the Confederacy, politicians fell over themselves getting away from its symbols.

While a few supporters of the Old Dixie are resolute, most leading public figures want nothing to do with commemorations of the Lost Cause. Indeed, once NASCAR declared that the St. Andrew’s cross and stars was not a fit emblem for its franchise — where that flag has been always been revered — the earth shook.

So after decades of protests over the Rebel flag and other Confederate insignia, which enjoyed prominent display in public spaces for much too long, that battle appears over. Progressives won in a rout.

But the war has only just begun. America has yet to come to terms with its original sin: slavery. Until we do, the removal of flags and statues remains a small gesture, a harbinger of a reckoning not yet come. Some 239 years after that awe-inspiring Declaration of Independence — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” — we are still in denial about the foundations upon which this republic was built.

Most high-school graduates can probably recite the bare outlines of the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise that allowed the delegates to the Constitutional Convention to adopt a founding document. That agreement counted each enslaved human being as three-fifths of a person.

(It remains a testament to the complex nature of the human enterprise that one of the greatest thinkers on liberty, Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves. When we speak of Jeffersonian democracy, what, exactly, do we mean?)

Some high-school grads may also be aware of the Dred Scott decision, rendered by the Supreme Court in 1857. It stated that even free black men had no rights that white men were bound to respect.

But here’s a fact you probably didn’t learn in your high-school history classes: Much of the wealth that the United States acquired early on was built on slavery, that ignominious institution in which one human being may own — own — another. As historian Eric Foner has put it: “The growth and prosperity of the emerging society of free colonial British America … were achieved as a result of slave labor.”

That wealth was not confined to the slave-owning South, either. Although the planters certainly owed most of their money to their unpaid laborers, Northern institutions also profited. Northern banks, insurance companies, and manufacturers all benefited — some more directly than others — from slave labor.

This is a great country, but it has a complicated history. The building of America was a violent, oppressive, and racist undertaking, not simply a virtuous tale of brave men breaking away from the overweening British Empire. The story of Colonists who were tired of paying high taxes on their imported tea is a well-told anecdote, but it neither begins nor ends a rather more painful narrative.

And enslaved Africans were not the only ones who suffered. Following the practices established by the European conquerors, the new government stole the best land from the Native Americans, consigning them to isolated corners of the country when it did not kill them outright.

Yet, our mythology and folklore acknowledge very little of that. That’s not in the stories we tell, the songs we sing, the poems we recite. It’s not only that history classes are haphazard and superficial, but also that our common tales are woven from misrepresentations, if not outright lies. Land of the free? Not at first.

Truth be told, history is a hard sell in these United States, no matter how it’s presented. We’re a moving-on people, hustling forward, closing the books, looking ahead. That has helped us in so many ways. Unlike, say, the Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East, we don’t consume ourselves with arguments more than a millennium in the making.

Yet our failure to acknowledge a turbulent and cruel history is a hindrance, a barrier to a richer future. We can continue to perfect our union only through a full accounting of the past.

(Cynthia Tucker won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.)

Photo: Slave trader’s business in Atlanta, Georgia (via Wikicommons)

Cynthia Tucker Haynes

Cynthia Tucker Haynes, a veteran newspaper journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, is a Visiting Professor of Journalism and Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Georgia. She is also a highly-regarded commentator on TV and radio news shows.

Haynes was editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper for 17 years, where she led the development of opinion policy. More recently, she was that newspaper’s Washington-based political columnist. She maintains a syndicated column through Universal Press Syndicate, which is published in dozens of newspapers around the country. Besides winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007, Haynes has also received numerous other awards, including Journalist of the Year from the National Association of Black Journalists.

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  1. Joe Steel July 4, 2015

    But here’s a fact you probably didn’t learn in your high-school history classes: … As historian Eric Foner has put it: “The growth and prosperity of the emerging society of free colonial British America … were achieved as a result of slave labor.”

    Which is why reparations are a good idea. Slaves were denied the wealth they created and should be repaid.

    1. marriea July 4, 2015

      I agree that slaves were cheated. But reparations WILL NEVER HAPPEN because another thing that is overlooked is that slavery at the time was legal.
      As a Black American, it is more important that all of my fellow blacks can do is to educate ourselves to and about our past even with it’s unfair burdens placed on us even today. We should make sure that our children learn the two histories and instead of harboring the resentments of the past, use it as a stepping stone to make ourselves an even tighter noose around the necks of our adversaries.
      each our kids well, even when the teachers of now can’t or won’t. Make use of the libraries reading and understanding the past from a pro and con standpoint of view. You’d best believe that the other side does.
      At my age now, the only thing I can do is to make sure I help teach my grandkids as I did my children to let them know the only way to destroy something is from the inside, not throwing stones at it.

      1. whodatbob July 4, 2015

        Thank you!

      2. KDJ54 July 4, 2015

        Thank you for your comment. As a white person who was raised in a white religious community, which was also inhabited by more than an average share of bigots, I have been trying to educate myself for many many years. I could never understand their position, although they were thoroughly convinced that God has ordained it and consequently, they justified their beliefs and actions in Scripture. However, as I looked at my boyhood idols, such as Bill Russell, I was always struck by the fact that men such as him we’re just like me. so why did we have these divisions? So, I understood that I needed to learn more, so that I could be more understanding about the struggles that African Americans face on a daily basis. I have read enough to understand that too many of today’s problems facing that segment of our society have roots that extend into and through the entire issue of slavery. I believe that reparations would be a good start, but may be insufficient to atone for our sins. So much blood was spilled during the Civil War, but unfortunately history has been rewritten by some to ignore root causes of that bloody conflict. I believe we are still paying the price today for the sins of slavery and our ignorance.

        1. Alvin Harrison July 4, 2015

          Here is a story I tell that brings the issue into clear focus…

          Imagine there is a foot race between various ethnic groups of Americans, The black man has had his legs chained his whole life, so that the largest step he can take is one foot in length. Before the race the chains are now removed. How do you think he will do in this race? He has never learned to run, let alone take a step longer than one foot. He will be left behind unless give a substantial head start.

          This is exactly what is needed in America today…a head start for African Americans. Many White Americans believe that removing the chains makes things even now. This is not so. 400 years of slavery which include the breaking down of any family structure, cannot be erased with the removal of the chains. Significant help and a concerted effort to undo this type social damage to Black people will be needed.

          One big issue is “who is going to pay for this” in Affirmative Action type reparations. Todays White people do not want to pay the cost of the slavery that made this country wealthy, because it didn’t happen “on their watch”. But…it will have to be paid at some point or we will never get true equality of opportunity in the USA. Black people only want what they deserve, a head start in a race they did not ask to be in and have been handicapped by the other participants.

          1. marriea July 4, 2015

            And I still say reparations ain’t the answer. It would be the answer if most people were educated to know what to do with any new found wealth, but we know that ain’t gonna happen. Education is the only answer. And like the commercial JP WENTWORTH, most people want their money now because “I want to spend my money the way I want to spend it’. (Or lose it) sigh

          2. Alvin Harrison July 4, 2015

            Reparations would do nothing, ….the money would be spent and we would have the same problem….what is needed is better educational funding for blacks….money spent to encourage educational participation. Money to help parents stay together and raise their children. Preferential treatment in the workplace…things that would give Blacks the “head start” in this race that is life in America. Others would have to suffer while playing field was leveled and it could take 100 years….that is why it will never happen…America is all about “today”…plans that go beyond are never going to be accepted……but you cannot undo 400 years of slavery by tomorrow.

        2. marriea July 4, 2015

          Yep, and the way the stories on the movies and TV are told, a person will argue you down that the REALITY didn’t happen that way. Our whole history has been romanticized.

      3. Joe Steel July 4, 2015

        …blacks can do is to educate ourselves to and about our past even with it’s unfair burdens…

        The task can be made easier with money. Stipends to fund education and subsidies to new enterprises can lessen the burden.

        1. marriea July 4, 2015

          Yes, I do believe that money can and will help. But I also realize the world we live in in this country is a very capitalistic one. Let’s just say that that every black was to receive $150,000 in reparations. Now I realize that in this day and age, it’s a drop in the bucket in comparison to what businesses made on the backs of the slaves. Whereas some would put that money to good use, I suspect that the majority would squander it buying things like TVs, fancy cars, expensive clothing, the type of things that one wanted but didn’t have the resources they had before. In addition to that capitalistic world, we also have those buzzards out there who would try and capitalize on these new found victims.
          Money in an educational system, THAT WORK would be more beneficial to all, but most people want ‘theirs now’.
          I remember an episode in Minnesota a few years back in which something happened in a certain town in which the townspeople got a nice windfall. In a matter of months, those people were right back where they started from and some worst off because they borrowed against this windfall not realizing or not paying attention to the oncoming interest rate. Many couldn’t wait to get the latest and biggest TVs and other nonsense. It’s human nature.
          But with education comes more opportunity to at least put one’s self into a state continued fishing as opposed to someone giving you a fish for a day.
          The problem is even the education today is substandard for many, and I cringe when I hear parents who don’t take the time to help their kids with homework cry that’s it the teacher’s fault.
          I realize that there are some horrific teachers out there that shouldn’t be in the field, but unless the environment is there that permits the willing teachers to do their job, such as disruptive students in which you can’t say ‘boo’ to, or the parents will be crying sue, I feel bad for the instructor.
          Ler’s hope that these parents will realize that they are crippling their kids for life.

          1. Joe Steel July 5, 2015

            …Let’s just say that that every black was to receive $150,000 in reparations…Whereas some would put that money to good use, I suspect that the majority would squander it buying things like TVs, fancy cars, expensive clothing, the type of things that one wanted but didn’t have the resources they had before.

            They’re adults. It’s their choice.

          2. Mark Caponigro July 5, 2015

            OK, but part of the deal should include making consultation available for those who want to use the money they receive wisely and prudently.

      4. Phil Johnson July 4, 2015

        Well stated. Hope this attitude prevails in national discourse of Foggy Bottom matters.

    2. S.J. Jolly July 4, 2015

      Reparations, yes Former slave owners still living should pay former slaves still living for the labor forced from them. (Shouldn’t require much of a court room).

  2. latebloomingrandma July 4, 2015

    My high school history teacher was an “expert” on the Civil War. He insisted that the war was fought over states rights, not slavery. I guess technically speaking that was true, but he completely ignored the issue of slavery. I wonder what he thinks today.

  3. FireBaron July 4, 2015

    One thing we all need to remember. Prior to their joining the various armies of the Confederacy, Robert E Lee, Thomas J Jackson, James Longstreet, George Picket and many other leaders of Confederate armies were combat veterans of the US Army, having served in the Mexican War and in the Indian Fighting in the West. Lee also served for a period as Commandant at West Point. Their deeds for the Union should not be forgotten.
    This brings up a subject that many people are unaware of. If you go to the Saratoga Battlefield Park, along the tour and not seen from the road is a monument to a Major who is nowhere named. This man is now acknowledged as the hero of that and many other battles, and had Congress listened to General Washington, he would have been promoted to Major General. Instead, Benedict Arnold turned traitor for love and money.

  4. Xenophon July 4, 2015

    History ought not be a chain that constrict us, nor the dust we sweep bit by bit beneath the rug. Our history ought to be examined, critiqued, challenged, accepted, and finally laid aside when it has taught us what it can. History isn’t a circle which repetes itself in time, it’s a spiral where themes join the chorus, but never quite the same.

  5. fortunev July 4, 2015

    If this country were to teach all students nationwide the truth of its founding there would necessarily develop an appreciation for every citizen of every ethnicity who helped build the society in which we live. The country was built according to a European system based on theft of property, slavery, murder, physical beatings, ethnic cleansing, rape, racism: these are truths that cannot be swept under the rug, or minimized, or denied. Not until every citizen faces the truth will there be a bona fide “American” citizen. Not until then will “white” privilege be tossed into the garbage where it belongs.

  6. paulyz July 5, 2015

    Leave it to the “National” Memo to (celebrate) American Independence by denigrating our Country, constantly critical of their own Country, while enjoying living in one of the most free societies in the world. Most nations throughout history had problems as well, but all I ever hear is how racist & terrible the U.S. is, never mentioning how slavery had been in place with both white & black workers BEFORE we gained our independence, & eliminated it. Will it benefit your lives in any way to dwell constantly on long-ago happenings, or realize how much freedom & opportunity you have now, and get on with being a part of it instead of allowing anger to consume you.

  7. Godzilla July 6, 2015

    Let’s first by most of you getting an education on slavery, none of you, including the author has a clue. Second, if we as a nation are going to put our history behind us, that which is good and bad, then we must also remove all references to Martin Luther king Jr, Frederick Douglas, Ceasar Chavez, FDR and all other Presidents, including Obama. Rename the Presidential libraries and stop building them. All ir it goes. Maybe then you clowns will finally BE HAPPY (NOT). LIBERAL PROGRESSIVES ARE A CANCER TO THIS COUNTRY. Republicans aren’t much better, but a treatable rash that can still be fixed (maybe).


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