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Looking Towards the Promised Land: Why America Cannot "Get Over" Slavery

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Message Richard Rapaport
If you need proof that there is no fool like an old fool, particularly when it comes to race relations, look no further than Virginia House of Delegates Member from Hanover County, Frank D. Hargrove. Hargrove, who is 79 and a WWII veteran, managed to side-swipe both Blacks and Jews suggesting in an interview in the Charlottesville Daily Progress that rather than having Virginia officially apologize for slavery, Blacks should simply "get over" it. Going beyond what is a sort of retrograde mantra by Southern whites of a certain age, Hargrove's rationale for a general racial forgiveness in America was to ponder hypothetically, "Are we going to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ?"

As ill-timed and ill-tuned as Hargrove's words were; published the day following Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the man actually did make several useful associations even if not quite the ones he intended. The most salient of these, as both Blacks and Jews could tell you, is that "getting over" slavery, like transcending several millennia of blood libel, doesn't happen overnight. Nor does it happen in the space of the century-and-a-half since the official abolition of Negro slavery in America following the passage of the 13th Amendment in December 1865. For both Blacks and Jews, emancipation has been an epochal process.

Each year, around Easter, Jews around the world celebrate Passover, the holiday that commemorates the freeing of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt sometime around 1600 B.C. Thirty-five hundred years later, the miraculous escape of the Jews from Pharonic bondage is still celebrated as one of the most important moments in Judaism's nearly six-millennium history. The story of the flight from Egypt makes up Exodus, the second of the five "Books of Moses," what Christians refer to as "The Old Testament." The proximity of Passover to Easter, of course, has to do with the fact that Christ's Last Supper was in actuality a Passover Seder.

As of today, American Blacks have only been free for one twenty-fifth of the time since the Jewish Exodus, a mere blink of the historical eye. That period shrinks considerably considering the true condition of the former slaves in the American South following what is weirdly still referred to as "Reconstruction." If anything, the condition of the freed slaves in the former Confederacy and in the U.S. in general "deconstructed" hideously through the second half of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th. In antebellum America, slaves may have been chattel, but at least they were highly valuable chattel. Just prior to the Civil War, the nearly four million slaves in America were widely judged to have an accrued value of four billion dollars, or $1,000 each. This was a prodigious sum in those days and after the Civil War, that value figuratively and literally, vanished.

Following the surrender of Robert E. Lee and his Army of Virginia in April 1865, a low-grade insurgency raged for years in the South, the purpose being the suppression of freed slaves and the elimination of the radical Republican "carpetbaggers" who were trying to aid Constitutionally enfranchised Blacks in their pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. By the 1880s, the nation South and North was far more interested in healing the wounds of secession than in redressing the mistreatment of former slaves. There was little happiness and less justice for America's Blacks as the night of racism descended under the reign of Jim Crow and the Klu Klux Klan in the waning years of the 19th Century.

Instead of the slaver's whip, it became the lyncher's noose that came to symbolize oppression for generations of American Blacks. We thus must ask ourselves, when exactly did the bondage of America's former slaves end if clearly not in 1865?

Could it be in the 'teens and twenties, when passionate pioneers like W.E.B. du Bois and Marcus Garvey gave voice to a nascent civil rights movement? Was it in 1948, when President Harry Truman finally desegregated the American armed forces by Presidential edict? Could it have been in 1955 with the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, or 1961 when the Freedom Riders challenged white supremacy on the highways of the South? Was it rather in August 1963 with Martin Luther King made his "I Have a Dream" speech, or in 1964 or 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson repectively signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.

Arguably, the answer is that bondage never went away, and that it exists to this day in America. That argument becomes even more powerful if we take into account the relegation of a huge number of Black Americans into the nation's inner cities and poorest suburbs, where lack of economic opportunity and second-class education creates its own kind of 21st Century bondage.

Thus, the answer to Delegate Hargrove's plea for Blacks to "get over" slavery must be "no," America's Blacks cannot simply transcend the history of racism, any more than Jews could simply throw off the mantle of bondage as soon as they passed border control from Egypt into the Sinai. The truth is that slavery is an institution of such pernicious effect that can take centuries, if not millennia for the wounds to heal.

The Prophet Moses, who led the Jews out of Egypt, for one, understood that it could not simply be a straight-line march from slavery into the Promised Land. He instead led the Jews on a forty-year wilderness trek so that that the older generation would pass on, giving way to a younger one more comfortable with the trappings and demands of freedom. Moses himself, the final survivor of his generation, died within sight of the Promised Land, forbidden by God to enter it himself.

That act three thousand five hundred years ago, lends heart-breaking poignancy to the "I have seen the promised land" speech of the American Black Moses, Martin Luther King, in Memphis the night before his assassination. That speech, and King's understanding of the difficult, and as yet incomplete journey, stands as an irrefutable retort to America's Frank Hargrove's, who inability to understand why we cannot simply "get over" slavery simply and powerfully answers its own question.

Richard Rapaport is a San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer. He can be reached at rjrap@aol.com.

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Richard Rapaport is a leading San Francisco Bay Area freelance writer.
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