holocaust walk
Holocaust Memorial in Germany

I don’t have a problem with the annual memorializing of 9/11. But last month marked the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in the US, acknowledged only by some segments of the press and small memorials here and there. It would have been easy to miss it entirely. It makes me wonder what we commemorate and why.

I’ve been listening to the White Lies podcast, which is ostensibly an investigation into the murder of the Reverend James Reeb, beaten to death after joining the movement for voting rights in Alabama. But really it’s an examination of the South, and culpability, and how we lie to ourselves in order to absolve ourselves of responsibility. It’s not just the South that excels at this. Our country loves to forget the horrors we’ve committed. Unless we’re turning our crimes into victories, which is a specialty of the South. As is the “memorial as fuck you.” Not just Confederate statues deep into the 20th Century, but a statue of the Klan’s first Grand Wizard a week into the term of Selma’s first Black mayor. In 2000.

Perhaps this makes sense to you. A country doesn’t want to rest on its mistakes and crimes, it wants to celebrate its achievements. It wants to encourage pride and patriotism. So we remember “good” things we’ve done and times when we were victimized, but not anything for which we were responsible, in which we fucked up. But I keep thinking of Germany and the ubiquitous reminders of the Holocaust. There is another way to do things. It might help our understanding of history and mitigate our arrogance if we acknowledged African slavery and Indian genocide in the same way.

Of course, Germany made reparations to Jews. I don’t know if they could memorialize if they hadn’t. How would we feel in this US if we were constantly reminded of those crimes against humanity, while simultaneously recognizing that the structural racism and oppression continue. Someone might want to do something about it. Who knows where that could lead.

Then again, right wing racists are on the rise in Germany, too, so maybe nothing does any good.

Now I’m in a bad mood.


400 Years Ago (+ several days)

1619I was going to post about how my critical self likes to take stock of my failures at the end of every season, but I think the cute, self-deprecating, sad overview can wait. Because where I really fucked up was in not writing about the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in what was to become this country by what were to become the admired White settlers of Jamestown, in colonial Virginia. You can look it up. The image above and quotes that link to excellent work are in the NY Times feature, The 1619 Project.

Slavery is not a blight on this country’s fine history; it is not a shameful period of time with a beginning and an end. It is this country. The United States is a country of brutality and greed, where we have always put profit above people. Our government has had to be forced, by disruption and death and citizen disgust, to make every expansion of human rights that we have grudgingly, eventually agreed to. Maybe that’s the way it always happens. I’m not enough of a student of history to say for sure. But when I read that Trump’s “least racist person in the world” line is about as close as he’s ever come to accurately quoting Thomas Jefferson, who repeatedly insisted that, “nobody wishes more than I” for abolition, while enslaving Black people and profiting financially and sexually from their exploitation, should I really be surprised? Should I be shocked that the legacy of slavery infects our very language? Should I not expect that our country would lead the way in pushing humanity towards extinction?

There is some debate that the Anthropocene (the geologic era of human influence) would more accurately be called the Capitalocene (the geologic era of capitalism), because it is not humanity that has warmed the planet to the point of crisis, but carbon-fueled capitalism. And what is capitalism but the pursuit of financial gain at the expense of everything else? (But the invisible hand, you say, what about the invisible hand?? The invisible hand is, in my view of the moment, nothing but an excuse to pursue wealth uninhibited by ethics. You, capitalist, don’t have to worry about whether what you are doing is wrong, because the market will correct you if it is. Look at the world and tell me that isn’t bullshit.)

But the heedless racing toward mass extinction is only one example of our culture of slavery. Capital punishment is another. As is mass incarceration. Bryan Stephenson (maybe the new Buddha/Jesus?) writes in the above 1619 feature, “Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment.” A country of slavery would also be expected to hurl barriers in the paths of non-white humans trying to seek safety therein; to use food and deprivation as weapons; to deny health care, etc. The idea that those lucky enough to buy themselves a good life have somehow earned it is as backward and unscientific as the belief that Europeans are of a different and superior species to Africans.

Slavery is an economic system in which countless lives are destroyed in order to fill the treasure chests of a few, and those lives are vilified in order to justify the destruction. Whether smearing the victims as racially inferior, lazy, greedy, better off, ignorant, foreign, stupid, dirty, insignificant, or violent, it’s all the same. It’s all a way to make brutality palatable and selfishness noble. And it will destroy, if not all of us, then certainly the lifestyle that it has created.

I’m feeling despondent today, but not depressed. Yay for me! Boo for you.