This is what we all probably wake up to once we hit a certain point of adulthood – that we can no longer remember our childhood days, except as a snowball of moments – that if we make the mistake of putting our heads down to “just get by”…all of a sudden you make wake up to a long period of time gone by, like Rip Van Winkle.
It’s a means of getting through the tough times, of course. Ignore the bad, cling to the good. Or bury oneself in distraction. That last one, I’ve been particularly guilty of. A distinct memory does hang with me, of telling my AP English teacher that I just couldn’t deal with Richard Wright’s Native Son and WHY was she making us read it? It was so awful, so painful…yeah, duh. She told me that it was the precise reason for reading it, because it was an example of abject awfulness.
Well, without going into a dissertation on Wright’s work, and why I still wouldn’t revisit it…I’ll just say this: I’ve read a lot of difficult stuff, and have come to be okay with it – but that particular work…I cannot deal with the idea of someone accidentally murdering another human being and then concealing it as Bigger Thomas did. He chose poorly….
On the other side of the coin, I’m now reading 12 Years A Slave and reflecting on a few hundred years of ignominy. It too is a difficult thing to read and at the same time really commit to the notion that you’re seeing accounts of real events. I notice that there is a tendency in the narrative to employ genteel language of the day, which does detract from really being able to let the book gut punch you like it should. I can only imagine that the film by the same name must make up for that small thing.
But take for a moment the idea that this man, Solomon Northup, a “free man of color” was kidnapped, enslaved, sent to Louisiana, and then determined on his own that he couldn’t reveal his status. He lived for twelve years trying to puzzle out either how to escape, or how to find someone who could communicate his predicament to those who could assert that he was a free man. So, he put his head down and plunged into the life of slavery in order to get by and survive long enough to finally see an end to it.
As far as I can see, however, the worst part of any of it is not only that he was compelled to become a slave, but that when he was set free, and able to return to his home…he went knowing that he was powerless to help any of the enslaved men and women he had come to know and care for. That there were hundreds upon hundreds upon thousands in the same condition, and he was going home, while they were doomed to stay.
I’m pretty sure that, were Mr. Northup able to look around our modern age, he’d be gratified to know that we’ve come so far as we have…though I’m equally certain that he would be baffled by the push to forget…the urging that we must snowball the past and leave it behind. I have to say I disagree with that idea. To me, it’s promoted by those who would rather not be reminded of the things we’ve done so very, horribly wrong.
The scourging of the African continent is pretty well one of the worst of these, though not unequalled.
I’ve not worked on sites that included Native American burials, and the oldest of those would be unmarked by now anyway – but I did work down in northern Virginia on a few 19th century cemetery sites that included African American servants or slaves, and I’ll never forget, no matter how hard anyone might wish me to, the poignancy of seeing those graves, set apart from those with stone markers, and turned perpendicular or askew from those “Christian” burials that oriented east-west. They are nameless, forgotten to the modern memory…only once did they walk the earth, were kept suborned, serving those who rarely even thought of them as fellow human beings.
Once, I was privileged enough to have gone through a training class in the military with some extraordinary women, one of whom was the first African American female fighter pilot (think of that – in the year 2000, she was breaking new ground), another of whom is well on her way to a Lieutenant Colonel’s rank, having come up from the enlisted side. I’m in awe of both of them on a daily basis (not to mention some of the other kickass women who came through at that time with us).
But it was ONLY some 150 years ago that saw the Gettysburg Address, and the approach of the end of a war that was partly predicated on the grounds of slavery being an unjust institution. How many times did this nation have a chance to put an end to it?
And now that we are in a different time, how well will we continue to curate and handle the legacy of those days? Better than up until now, I hope.