A White Man Reflects on Black History
Racism, Sin, and Healing the American Spirit
American Lit 101
Like every other February I can remember, this is African American History Month. If I am telling the truth, I normally don’t do anything special this month other than reading the feature article or two in the news. But with the events of the past year, I’ve given this month more thought. Specifically, I keep returning to a college class on African American history I took more than a decade ago back in my home state of Ohio.
Like many college students, one of my required courses for graduation was American Literature. Shortly before the semester’s start, I learned that the particular course I signed up for was not at all what I was expecting. This course was not going to touch on the works of Hawthorn, Hemingway, or Dickenson. Instead, it would focus exclusively on Black literature, particularly the African American slave narratives. At the time, I remember that I was not particularly enthusiastic about the course. I was already mildly annoyed that I had to take a literature class in the first place, as it had nothing to do with my major — economics. But I was also uneasy because I was hoping to avoid any class with a political element.
The Slave Narratives
For those who may not know, slave narratives were a genre of literature popular prior to the American Civil War. The narratives were written by former and escaped slaves who were educated and sponsored by Northern Abolitionists. Although not as well-known today, these narratives proved critical as they did much to hasten the end of slavery. Some of the narratives we read include:
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs
Life of Olaudah Equiano, by Olaudah Equiano
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass
As you might expect, these works were very painful to read. They starkly portrayed the reality of slavery: broken families, degradation, torture, and rape. In fact, some narratives were so graphic I had to read in bouts as I would sometimes tear up to the point I could no longer see clearly. Even so, despite the traumatic events, I found the authors to be surprisingly relatable, even to the modern reader. These were stories of people enduring extraordinary hardship and suffering, but it also felt as if you were hearing these tales from the other side of the table.
However, these narratives were much more than an enlightening read. By their sheer achievement, these works of literature laid bare the lie of White supremacy and justification for slavery. Indeed, the highly personal nature of the narratives plainly demonstrated the writers’ humanity, while the erudition and prose irrefutably proved their equality¹. Historically, these writings were also seminal, providing the kindle and catalyst for emancipation.
Racism as Sin
While the historical importance of these narratives is clear, there was one aspect of the writing that struck a chord with me. One of the themes of the slave narratives that I found fascinating was that slavery was portrayed as a sort of curse, a curse that impacted Blacks as well as Whites. For Blacks, this curse was a cause of great suffering, but for Whites, it was a cause of sin. This latter point resonated deeply with the very pious and very Christian Abolitionists who read the narratives. Knowing their audience, the narrative authors depicted slavery as an institution that perpetuated cruelty, greed, and adultery; a practice that trapped White slaveholders and overseers in a cycle of vice and sin.
For me, this framing of slavery was very different than what I had encountered before. If virtue is its own reward, then sin is its own punishment, and the slave narratives drove this point home masterfully². They reframed slavery, not as a Southern problem, but as an American problem and, for 19th Century Christians, a spiritual problem. Indeed, I started to take this line of thinking further. It was not just slavery that had the corrupting aspects of sin, racism too was a corruption of the American spirit.
Healing the Spirit through History
Condoleeza Rice once said that slavery was America’s birth defect, and this analogy has proven all too true. Many White Americans have long viewed slavery and its racist legacy as if it was a birth defect, as something we’d rather not face too directly. To an extent, this is understandable. Given the dreadful history of slavery, sharecropping, and the KKK; learning about the African American history is painful to bear and, for many White people, can also be tinged with feelings of guilt. In response, many have resisted studying Black history, but in so doing, they haven’t just cut themselves off from an uncomfortable topic, they’ve cut themselves off from a people — our people.
Even though more than 150 years have passed since the end of slavery, our country still suffers from spiritual trauma due to our inability to look plainly, deeply, and compassionately at our shared history³. It is important for White Americans to take up the study of African American history, not necessarily to wallow in feelings of guilt or privilege, but to gain a deep and abiding compassion and appreciation for a people that they share a country with. After all, while racism has proved this country’s defect, Black people have proved this country’s blessing. Studying history can help us appreciate this fact better.
African Americans helped build this nation with their sweat, blood, and broken chains. They won Olympic medals, fought American wars, and served in the highest offices of our land. Black Americans created Gospel, Hip-Hop, Jazz, and Rock & Roll. They’ve worked as farmers and philosophers, astronauts and academics, pianists and Presidents. In their quest for liberty, they mounted lunch counters, buses, and bridges, faced down dogs and batons and brought America closer to the true meaning of its unrealized creed. In so doing, they helped heal the spirit of the nation and created a powerful rampart of justice that inspires the world’s persecuted to this day.
To be cut off from this history is also to be cut from the people who have inherited it. By not understanding it, we disconnect ourselves from our Black coworkers, our Black neighbors, and our Black friends. Regardless of their personal experience with racism, the Black people in our lives today nearly all live with a tragic truth — that for centuries their ancestors were treated appallingly for no other crime than bearing the beauty that God gave them. Our country lives with the echo of those crimes to this day. Moreover, by learning this history, we can learn to engage our fellow citizens with compassion and understanding rather than sulking away out of guilt and discomfort.
The Importance of African American History
Over a decade ago I took a college course I did not want to take and read books I did not want to read because I thought, crucially, it was not something that would affect me. How wrong I was. African American history is American history, and it is our history. I realize now that I did not truly understand American history until I studied Black history. Reading these stories of long-dead former slaves taught me a great deal about my country both then and now.
It is fitting to end by recognizing the writers of the slave narratives; brave souls who fled bondage, educated themselves, elevated themselves, and ended up laying the foundation of their own emancipation. Breathtakingly, some had the presence of mind, even through sorrow and suffering, to see the spiritual price slavery was exacting on the people that were perpetuating it and the country that had institutionalized it. Inspired by their work, we can choose to see racism today as more than simply a social issue, but as a spiritual issue as well. One that we can address not just with our voice and our vote, but with our heads and our hearts.
¹Prior to the Civil War, anti-literacy laws in many States made it a crime to teach Blacks to read or write
²This aspect of the narratives was not an attempt to draw a false equivalence in victimhood between Whites and Blacks.
³While formal slavery ended in 1865, some parts of the South continued to press Blacks into the forced labor well-after the end of the Civil War, please see: