A long awaited apology: Slavery and the US Congress

by Binoy Kampmark Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He also taught history at the University of Queensland. 23.08.2008

We live in a confessional culture. Moral politicians give up the ghost and confess to hypocrisy when their polygamous bed-antics are exposed. The President of the United States is deeply sorry for his involvement with 'that woman'. But such fluff is relatively trivial compared to apologetics behind crimes and immense cruelties.

The train of state apology has been gathering steam. Non-government entities, irked by the burden of history, have issued an assortment of mea culpas on the matter of America's 'peculiar institution' - slavery, and its reconstructionist backlash - Jim Crow segregation. Such entities had, at various stages of their existence, been indebted to the fruits of slave labor. JP Morgan Chase, Aetna, Wachovia and the Southern Baptist Convention commenced the confessional avalanche. The States, as is so often the case, followed suit. New Jersey deliberated over the motion earlier this year, and fronted with an apology. And now, the United States Congress.

But even before the apology resolution came at the start of August, skeptics mobilized: does it really matter, they argue? Is it hankering for an unappeased past that will never been fully redressed, the pain of it ineradicable? The legal form is, of course, compensation, and governments fear that more than anything else. Suffering should only ever be appeased symbolically - and slavery, speaking of untold suffering, suggests untold sums of money. States see that, not in terms of compensation, but in terms of how they will be punished for previous wrongs. Computing cruelty is a difficult task.

House Resolution 194, written by Steven Cohen (D-Tenn.) commences with the somber words, 'Whereas millions of Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and the 13 American colonies from 1619 through 1865'. It states how 'enslaved families' were destroyed by separation; that no other form of 'involuntary servitude' had been seen in America, a system that resulted in persons being 'brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized, and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage.'

Jim Crow segregation is excoriated, and its lingering effects acknowledged. The apology is then made to 'African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow'. The hope of this apology is that 'racial healing and reconciliation' will follow.

The responses then, from many: lukewarm. Much like tepid water off a duck's back. One letter to the News and Notes segment of America's NPR from a listener, Michael Brown, considered the apology, like any expression of mere sorry 'lame'. Lame that is, in the absence of an attainment of equality 'at all levels, education, financial institutions, employment, housing, and business development.' Marvellous to some that it happened but this was simply one step in national catharsis. Psychologist Julie Armstrong, quoted in the Washington Post (2 August), urged a 'follow-up' through changes in school curricula and home discussions.

Les Payne of Newsday, as a self-confessed 'full-blooded descendant of Africans enslaved in Alabama' admitted 'cautious surprise.' Lecturer Chad Dion Lassiter of University of Pennsylvania considered the action one that had arrived 'One hundred and forty-three years may be too late' (2 August). Yes, it may well have had 'symbolic' ballast to it, but it still did not confront the fundamental issue of restitution. The sponsor of the resolution, Cohen himself, saw it as an expiatory act.

Of course, the diverse reaction did not preclude opposition to such a national apology. A constant argument: apology suggests a doctrine of original sin. 'Why should Americans today pay for the sins of our forefathers?' blogged a listener on the NPR website. For others, it would destabilize and divide further. Members of such libertarian organizations as the Ayn Rand society believe that such an apology would actually perpetuate racism. A piece from July 13, 1997 by Robert W. Tracinski says as much.

Carefully worded resolutions on their own accord do little to cure the harm that took place. The move may be seen as a vote grab. The man proposing it is doing it less for a bleeding heart than political survival. He can hardly be blamed for that. But politics is a case not merely of survival, but justice. This step, while small, is not so small as to be insignificant.

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