Kind of Red

March 1, 2011

Up From Slavery

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Painted One @ 12:20 am

“[W]hen we get a little farther away from the conflict, some brave and truth-loving man, with all the facts before him . . .will gather from here and there the scattered fragments, my small contribution perhaps among the number, and give to those who shall come after us an impartial history of this grandest moral conflict of the century.  Truth is patient and time is just.”

-Frederick Douglass, circa 1891

Nearly two hundred and twenty-four years have elapsed since The United States of America “launched its improbable experiment in democracy;” and yet in still the nation unquestionably grapples with the problem of “the relation of the darker to the lighter races,” as it did during the time when a collection of “farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots . . . made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention.”  Undoubtedly America’s bitter struggle to navigate the quagmire of its racial caste system arises from the nation’s tortured history of slavery.

Our nation’s original text enshrined America’s most shameful compromise by allowing for the slave trade to continue twenty more years beyond the ratification of the Constitution.  Consequently, the nation’s highest law denied entire segments of the population its most precious bequest, “ the rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by [the founding] fathers.” Congress has long since sought to remedy this injustice with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, but America has still searches to absolve its “original sin.”

Four different stories in the recent news cycle have illustrated such points.  Those stories—a congresswoman’s egregiously erroneous account of the founding fathers’ role in abolishing slavery, a Secession Ball in South Carolina, a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that removes its use of racial epithets and a parent’s lawsuit against a local school district alleging the school district inflicted emotional distress upon an elementary school student when her school taught about slavery—demonstrate our failed attempts to reconcile our disgraceful past.

While speaking at an event sponsored by Iowans For Tax Relief last month, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) said the United States was founded on racial and ethnic diversity.  Additionally, she proclaimed that the founding fathers worked “tirelessly” to abolish slavery.  Specifically, she stated, “men like John Quincy Adams . . . would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.”  While she accurately described slavery as an “evil,” “scourge” and “stain on our “history,” she also heralded America at the time of European settlement as a nation composed of “different cultures, different backgrounds, different traditions,” and further added that the “color of their skin” or “language” or “economic status” did not factor into the treatment of various people.  She said, “Once you got here, we were all the same.  Isn’t that remarkable? It is absolutely remarkable.”   Nothing could be further from the truth.  As the late Judge A. Leon Higginbotham put it: “[T]he Constitution’s references to justice, welfare and liberty were mocked by the treatment meted out daily to blacks from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries through the courts, in legislative statues, and in those provisions of the Constitution that sanctioned slavery for the majority of black Americans and allowed disparate treatment for those few blacks legally ‘free.’”

ST. PAUL, MN – SEPTEMBER 02: U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) speaks on day two of the Republican National Convention (RNC) at the Xcel Energy Center on September 2, 2008 in St. Paul,

Critics of Congresswoman Bachmann’s remarks abound, yet one of the more harrowing parts of her preposterous view of American history is that so many people share it, or want to share it.  Few in attendance at the event where Rep. Bachmann made her remarks objected to her comments, perhaps because they too wanted to believe a part of American history that did actually not occur.  Recently in South Carolina, some private citizens also showcased their desire to romanticize distasteful portions of the nation’s history.

Several weeks ago, South Carolina began commemorating the 150-year anniversary of its secession with a series of public events.   On Thursday December 20, 1860, the 169 delegates of the South Carolina state convention voted unanimously to issue “An Ordinance to Dissolve the Union Between the State of South Carolina and the Other States.” The document declared that South Carolina repealed the United States Constitution and its amendments, called for a confederacy of the states and eventually led to the beginning of The Civil War.

While South Carolina commemorated its secession with little fanfare outside of the state, a privately sponsored event sparked a larger controversy.  Particularly, several South Carolina citizens organized a “Secession Ball” in the city of Charleston, in which revelers dress in period costume.  The Ball sparked controversy because of the attendants’ reckless attempt to relish a time many would rather soon forget; moments when the value of its slaves mattered more to South Carolina than its membership in the Union.  It is as NPR host Michel Martin noted during her interview with Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, “despite being rooted in the past, certain events can cut very deeply in the present.” The same holds true for a time-honored piece of American literature.


An Alabama-based publishing company, NewSouth Books, recently released a new US edition of Mark Twain‘s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The newly released edition will feature notable revisions; it will supplant the novel’s now infamous use of the demeaning racial epithet, “nigger” for the word “slave.” NewSouth Books’ newly released edition also expunges the derogatory term “injun” from the novel.  Though the book’s editor, Dr. Alan Gribben of Auburn University, Montgomery advocated for the revisions, they have fostered a vigorous debate. Dr. Gribben has explained the revisions by stating, “We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers.”

I remember hearing comparable lines of reasoning when similar debates emerged when I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn while in high school.  Such reasoning, as compassionate as it might be, does not convince me any more now than it did then.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which chronicles exploits of a young man along the Mississippi River in the mid-19th Century, has become classic American literature because of its beautiful story telling and griping portrayal of a bygone era.  Readers journeyed with Finn as he rode the curves of the Mississippi and observed along with Finn a time few living persons can scarcely remember.  That is why leaving the original text intact, with all its hurtful language, is necessary.  To remove it would be to pretend as though such harsh realities did not exist.  Nevertheless, those realities did exist, and we must face them as we must face others.   This is a lesson a parent in Michigan has yet to fully grasp.

Jamey Petree, an African American father in Michigan, recently filed a lawsuit against his daughter’s former school district, essentially alleging his daughter suffered racial bias when her teacher read passages regarding slavery.  The suit, filed in Macomb County Circuit Court in Mount Clemens, seeks more than $25,000 in compensation.  Mr. Petree’s allegations hinge on language in passages from a book entitled From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, a book his daughter’s fifth grade class read referencing slavery.  He alleges hearing references to the purchase of slaves, in addition to the use of “nigger” when referring to slaves and other derogatory references to African Americans inflicted emotional distress upon his daughter.

While I certainly empathize with Mr. Petree’s concern over his daughter’s reaction to excerpts from From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, I find his suit a terrible mistake.  Similarly to how proponents of censoring The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn took offense to language referencing African Americans.  Mr. Petree and his daughter should take offense to writings that refer to African Americans’ skin as “satan’s thoughts.”  That is the point.  Slavery was traumatic.  Any accurate retelling of its horrors should shock and appall any who encounter it.

The legacy of chattel slavery is America’s most notorious blight, and the repugnant legacy produced by slavery’s offspring serve as painful reminders of the fallibility of a nation that holds noble truths “self-evident.”  Notwithstanding, that painful history is American history.  The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, Jim Crow, racially motivated domestic terror and the like, are as much a part of American history as Lexington and Concord, Lewis and Clark’s arrival at the Pacific and/or The Louisiana Purchase.  The United States of America must acknowledge its shameful past for what it is, if it is ever to successfully bend its narrative arc above the color line and “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”  There is no other way.

Conforming our past indiscretions to what we desire our nation to become, or wish it once was, is intellectually dishonest and dooms are nation to continue rehearsing the feigned theater of racial reconciliation rather than merely accomplishing it.  The founding fathers did not fight tirelessly to abolish slavery. The Three Fifths Compromise is still in the Constitution.  Slavery officially ended within the union seventy-six years after the ratification of the Constitution.  Many of the founding fathers owned slaves at the time of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, including Thomas Jefferson, who fathered an entire flock of children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.  The fact that an entire state desired to preserve its “right” to hold slaves trumped its desire to remain in the Union is not worth celebrating.  During the span of our nation’s history, it has proven socially acceptable to refer to African Americans in despicable terms.  Consequently, a work of literature such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn used the word “nigger” 219 times without apology, because the novel merely reflected the spirit of the times.  Chattel slavery as practiced in the United States represented one of the more cruel, brutal and dehumanizing institutions in the history of the world; it’s recounting should shock and upset young children.  Nevertheless, young children, particularly those in America, must learn such tragic details.  To tell another tale of America would simply be one that would find its place amongst myths, epics, fables and other works of fiction.  It would also cement Mark Twain’s assertion that “the very ink with which [our] history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”  We should strive to have the story of our nation’s future written with different ink than the one that wrote its past.



  1. “That is why leaving the original text intact, with all its hurtful language, is necessary.”

    Agreed and well written!

    Comment by Darien Gabriel (@DarienGabriel) — February 16, 2012 @ 2:55 pm | Reply

    • Indeed Darien. We yet have far to go, but it all begins with a careful attention to where we have been.

      Comment by The Painted One — March 19, 2012 @ 11:05 am | Reply

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