150 years after the supposed end of slavery, we find that it still shapes the way most African Americans and Caucasian Americans think about, and act around, each other. We – at least those of us that believe in evolution – tend to forget that our ancestors were all Africans, and slaves and their descendents are our relatives, albeit many times removed. Belief in social justice and the application of good manners have gotten us all this far, but we are now essentially stuck, whites not knowing how to get beyond slavery and blacks not knowing how to heal from it. Whites try as hard as they can not to offend blacks, and blacks see much of their lives through a lens of racism. Both are on tenterhooks.
So here we are, stuck in the middle of the seven stages of grief:
1. SHOCK & DENIAL
When Africans were put on slave ships, they must have experienced the first stage of grief. Sold, in some cases by their African friends or enemies, they likely suffered from some form of PTSD; shock at what was being done to them and denial that anyone could do such a thing.
2. PAIN & FRUSTRATION
As the shock of slavery wore off, it was replaced by unimaginable pain and suffering. While I would in no way condone the institution of slavery, the roots of American culture were sown in the pain and grief of slaves and former slaves. African and African American contributions to American art, music, literature, science, medicine, law, the humanities, and architecture have made us what we are today. I find it ironic that peoples brought here against their will ended up defining our lives and our culture.
3. ANGER & BARGAINING
Frustration gave way to anger, especially when Emancipation turned out to be a sham. For decades after the Civil War, African American anger burned, held barely in check by the forces of violence and economics. These forces served to enslave peoples just as effectively as shackles forged of iron and steel.
When anger didn’t produce the desired results, African Americans and their advocates began to bargain for freedom and equality. No one embodies the conflicting eddies of the transition from anger to bargaining more notably than Malcolm X, and no one reflects the bargaining position more clearly than Dr. Martin Luther King. But thousands of others also deserve the credit – and tributes – that have been heaped upon these two iconic men.
4. DEPRESSION, REFLECTION, LONELINESS
And so here we are, stuck between stage three and stage four. Whites think African Americans should be getting on with their lives. African Americans need closure and can not find a way to get it. No amount of dialog can help the children of former slaves “get over it,” and no amount of reparations are sufficient to make up for past and ongoing repression. We are poised to finally come to grips with the true magnitude of the loss and suffering, but no one can clearly articulate a path along which we can all move forward.
The conversation needs to be about where we are and what it means, and there is no work being done to determine and implement solutions. The reason: we are trying to find global relief to individual pain. Only through a one on one dialog between individual black and white people will we begin to understand and accept each other. Until every white person truly understands what it’s like to be black in America, and until every African American believes that whites do “get it,” we’ll be stuck right here.
5. THE UPWARD TURN
In truth, a large part of the answer lies with education. Only through education can we build mutual respect, achieve economic equality, understand and appreciate the history and plights of others, and find the common ground that will enable all of us to come together.
But education is too often used as a tool to keep us from repairing the rifts between people. Basing education funding on local taxes, and the act of educating on teachers willing to work in the community, we ensure that poor schools stay poor, that disadvantaged students stay disadvantaged, and disenfranchised communities stay disenfranchised.
The myth of equal school funding as a panacea is just that: a myth. What equal funding does is maintain the status quo, keeping good schools good and bad schools bad. We need reparative funding: resources allocated to the poorest schools that will lift their students out of poverty, give them hope and fulfill their dreams. While some descry this as socialism, they do so only to deny the have-nots access to the American Dream. They who protest have a vested interest in perpetuating what amounts to an American caste system.
The second key is to teach whites true black history. Not just a module or two during Black History Month, or mentions of George Washington Carver and Booker T Washington in history books, but a fully integrated curriculum. And that includes Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans.
Whites have been educating black people for a long time…it’s time for black people to educate whites.
6. RECONSTRUCTION & WORKING THROUGH
Equal education (as opposed to equal schools) is the foundation on which we can finally abolish our caste system. Equal primary and secondary education that treats all contributions by all races, genders and ethnicities as equals will level the playing field when applying to college and for jobs. It will form the basis for a dialog among and between us, mutual respect, and create equal opportunities for economic growth.
Only then can we aspire to engage each other in working through our issues and reconstructing the country around the words and values espoused in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution:
- that all men (and women) are created equal,
- that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights,
- that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and
- that together we can form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.
7. ACCEPTANCE & HOPE
During this, the last of the seven stages we learn to accept what has happened to us as a country and agree to move forward together. But accepting reality doesn’t mean that we all find joy and happiness overnight. Given all that we have been through, it will take time.
Which is where hope comes into the picture. Lin Yutang once said:”Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.”