Slavery and its Legacy.
The Five Colleges Learning in Retirement (5CLIR) 2005 Memorial Series
Session #1 – February 16 at 4:00 PM, Amherst College
by Charles Gillies and State Representative Ben Swan
GILLIES: Good afternoon. Good afternoon and welcome to the Five College Learning in Retirement 2005 Memorial Series Keynote Event for Slavery and its Legacy. I’m Chuck Gilles, Project Director for this series of symposia focusing on the historic matter of Black slavery in the United States and its consequences down to our times. These events, which will unfold over the seven week period from today until April 7th in several different locations, have been made possible by such a variety of people and institutions that mentioning them all today would take most of the two hours. We have acknowledged them, our collaborators, our financial supporters, and my colleagues on the Planning Committee in the mailing brochure that many of you received or in the program that you should have all received today. I hope you will take note of their contributions. We at Five College Learning in Retirement are certainly appreciative of all of them, but today we’re especially appreciative of Amherst College’s support and for President’s Marx’s support.
Why the series “Slavery and its Legacy”? It started with a small group of us who had discovered – better late than never – that some of the American history we had learned or had been taught at a younger age and sometimes even in elite colleges like this one, was often distorted, incomplete or at times just plain false. This change in perception of early American history over the last several decades has had a lot to do with the Civil Rights Revolution of the ’50s and ’60s that all of our generation observed and some participated in as college students or as young adults. We learned not just that slavery had existed, which of course we knew, but that it was pervasive in early US history, that it was not just a southern issue and most importantly, that the consequences of the legacies persist.
How do they persist? In many, many ways which we hope will be more apparent in seven weeks than they might be now, but just two examples from the last couple of weeks in the news. For one, a modern financial institution discovers that their early success as businesses depended on gaining financial advantage through insuring of slaves. For another, prominent people used the wide discrepancies in life expectancy between Blacks and Whites, something primarily due to the disparity in infant mortality and discrepancies in healthcare, an embarrassment to us all, as a political device to attempt to sell their version of the reform of social security.
We can’t turn the clock back and erase the sins that we as a people may have been involved with, but surely with the South Africans we can engage in a truth and reconciliation process, to which I hope this series makes a contribution. We hope these symposia will present a frank view of the past, not the usual rosy one involving only the Underground Railroad or other acts of northern resistance, and we hope the series will offer an opening for dialogue about the present and the future.
President Clinton invited us to have a conversation about race. Our current President in his inaugural said, and I quote, “And our country must abandon all the habits of racism because we cannot carry the message of freedom and the baggage of bigotry at the same time.” This series is offered in part in response to the calls of both of these leaders.
by State Representative Benjamin Swan
GILLIES: We are pleased today to have with us State Representative Ben Swan, whom we have asked to say a few words of introduction. I notice from his website that Mr. Swan is a graduate of our local university, but he was invited today because members of our Planning Committee remembered that over the years he has been a strong and clear leader in the Springfield community during some very difficult times. Mr. Swan.
SWAN: Good afternoon. I’m pleased to be with you and to be a part of your program. I’ve been told that I have only a few moments to address you, so please bear with me as I try to connect what I’m calling the Invisible Man Syndrome as it reflects a legacy of slavery. Ironically, my remarks are related to what happened to me just a few minutes ago. When I arrived here, the program had just begun and I was escorted to a seat to the left of the master of ceremonies. People in the audience observed my entrance, but the emcee apparently did not see me. He did not know I was present. From his perspective, then, I was invisible.
In 1962 Ralph Ellison published his acclaimed novel, THE INVISIBLE MAN. The narrator of that story was a Black man who was attempting to navigate through a racist society in search of himself. His journey toward self-determination was long before the Montgomery Movement, before Brown vs. Board of Education or the Freedom Rides of the Congress of Racial Equality. The instance I just described, reminded me of what it feels like to be an Invisible Man. An appropriate question might be: How can an Invisible Man stand here and address this gathering? I wonder how many of you actually knew that I would be speaking today. All of the brochures and press releases somehow omitted my name. Surely you can understand what I mean when I say I felt that I had been designated as an Invisible Man.
The Invisible Man Syndrome is one of the legacies of slavery. Historically, Black people have not been seen by White folk. Think about that for a moment. Langston Hughes expressed it this way in his poem, “I, Too”:
I, too, sing America.
I’m the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh.
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
‘Eat in the kitchen,’
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–
I, too, am America.
(Interestingly enough, I too have eaten in the kitchen.) Hughes in this poem is talking about invisibility. Hughes also wrote the well known poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
Flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
Went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
In this poem Hughes authenticates – indeed, he celebrates – the visibility of the Black man from the shores of Africa to those of North America. He refuses to allow his people to be made invisible.
I, too, refuse to accept invisibility. My name is Benjamin Swan, Senior. I’m the seventh son and the eleventh child of George W. and Sally Mae Johnson Swan. My paternal grandfather, George W. Swan, I, was born in Alabama in 1854. You probably know that that was a few years before the Civil War. My maternal grandfather, Monroe Johnson, was born in Virginia in 1865. In a nutshell, my lineage is very visible and, I might add, very proud!
While I am pleased that symposia are being held during Black History Month, I am convinced that the needs they serve are more important to White people than Black people. I am suggesting here that White people have been victimized by the legacy of slavery much more than commonly recognized. The legacy of slavery allows White Americans to believe and behave as if there is no other human life equivalent to theirs. The insanity of this kind of thinking allows this country to engage in a preemptive invasion of a sovereign nation just because somebody feels like doing it! You don’t have to have a sound rationale; you simply feel that you are superior to other people in the world and so you do it. And this kind of thinking allows America to possess all the weapons of mass destruction that it can pull together, but no one else is permitted to have any.
In a similar fashion, the legacy of slavery allows folk to accept as factual the notion that America’s racism was a Southern phenomenon. Many believe that Northerners were far more enlightened regarding race. Yet it was the very same Northerners who felt it was all right to accept white skin as a standard by which to determine the value and intelligence of one human being over another.
The legacy of slavery has left us a body of bogus scholarship, a body of incomplete, dishonest and indefensible scholarly work which has generally been accepted by the established order. In short, much of Western thought has been based on the false assumption that African people were incapable of thought and, therefore, incapable of preserving their history. It is now up to us-and I’m referring to many of the academicians and students in the audience-to debunk much that we have accepted as truth. For too many years, we have made an entire continent invisible to ensure that white European thought remain dominant.
The legacy of slavery has also left America with an insane fetish for pornography-one that allows for the enslavement of children as well as women and men merely for recreational purposes or perverted sexual gratification. You can readily see how such exploitation of people is another way of making them invisible. This is the same mentality that permitted some slave masters to sell their own children as pieces of property, or use their God to justify the dehumanizing of a people.
While the program here today has good intentions, let us not be unmindful of the fact that the legacy of slavery allows the participants to feel comfortable discussing the subject of slavery in virtual isolation from African Americans. I want to digress for a moment to make a critical distinction here. We often carelessly refer to African Americans as former slaves. Slavery is a condition-not a people! No form of humankind can be legitimately labeled as slaves. I do acknowledge for the most part that this gathering consists of individuals of good will. The legacies to which I refer are not seen as damaging to you; rather they are damaging to others. However, we fail to see and understand that, in total, all of us are victims of America’s past.
In closing, I want you to think about some of the things I have briefly touched upon today. I want you to understand that our entire society is victimized when any part of it is subjugated to a status of invisibility. Your program today is a small but important part of correcting our vision. Especially to the young people gathered here, I want you to know that Black history is alive and well thanks to those who have begun the hard work of making our history known. We must continue to uncover the facts by asking someone who has fought through the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement. Ask someone who has witnessed the advances made by Black pioneers in the areas of education, government, the arts and sciences. Ask someone who has helped to keep our culture alive by passing on the stories of the past to the present generation.
I appreciate your inviting me to share my thoughts with you this afternoon, and I hope my comments have prodded a little bit of thought. If nothing else, I hope you remember that sometimes we become comfortable and don’t recognize that we, too, may perpetuate invisibility. Some of the things that are happening in our nation today make us all short-sighted. If we accept narrow views, if we go along with the values that stem from a legacy of slavery without combating them or somehow trying to change directions, we are as much a part of the problem as those who constructed the invisibility of African Americans in the first place.