Monday, July 4, 2016

It Was Supposed to be Better by Now - Freedom

Happy 4th July!  Let's have picnics and barbecues, listen to bands and watch fireworks!  Let's celebrate freedom!

"But the American Revolution happened so long ago, why does it even matter anymore?" said no American ever.

"But slavery was so long ago, and my ancestors never had slaves." said more white people than you can shake a sparkler at, and I get the concept, but I want to take a few minutes, today while we celebrate freedom, to talk about why slavery still matters.

I'm not going to go look up things and link them, you probably wouldn't read them anyway.  I'm sure you know how to use Google if you really are interested.

I know you have heard it, those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  You may think slavery would never happen again, but slavery is happening now.  No, it isn't legal, but it still happens.  There are still people who think it is perfectly all right to own a person who they see as a lower status and treat them anyway they wish.

But also, legal slavery was not as far in the past as you may think.  Mauritania didn't abolish slavery until 1981.  They didn't make it a crime until 2007.  Let that sink in for a minute.

That is less than a decade ago.

But we are talking about racism in the United States, where slavery was abolished after the Civil War.  That was a long time ago, right?

My Grandmother was born in the 1890's.  She told me stories about traveling by covered wagon from Denton, Texas to Oklahoma Territory to live in a log cabin. She knew older relatives who were alive during the Civil War.  She had a great aunt and uncle whose farm was burned down over their refusal to own slaves.  No, she wasn't a first hand witness, but she knew first hand witnesses and I knew her and I'm still alive.  Does that bring it a little closer for you?

And yes, other minority groups have faced discrimination and slavery in other times and places, and even in the US.  I could talk about my Irish ancestors.  We could have long discussions about other countries as well.  Here is the difference, and one of the reasons it still matters; you can't just look at me and tell my great-great grandpa left Ireland starving, faced discrimination, and married a Native American.  I'm an average American mutt.  So is my son-in-law, but his skin color says that some of his people were most likely slaves in this country and, whether we like it or not, this has limited some his opportunity.

But there is another way the long term effects of slavery still matter.  It's funny how we have no problem understanding the long term effects of inherited wealth. We know that kids who grow up in upper class homes are much more likely to attend university and have successful careers and good incomes.  But we don't like to talk about how hard it is to break the barriers of poverty.

America is the land of opportunity; work hard and you can do or be anything. We all love a good, rags to riches success story.  But you really need to understand, the really big jumps are rare, and even small steps are really hard.  Slavery and some of the broken promises of the emancipation set many people up to live in poverty, the kind of poverty that is almost inescapable.

My dad grew up on a dirt road in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The dirt road he lived on climbed up a bit of a hill, took a dip, then ended at a bigger road, less than a mile.  It was paved by the time I visited as a child, but it was still the poorest white neighborhood in town.

My Grandma's unpainted house with very limited indoor plumbing was near the bottom.  Some of the houses on that part of the hill had been rebuilt, newer and nicer, some hadn't.  There was a little store up at the dip, and the neighborhood kids would walk up there for candy and co-colas.  Some of those houses up there were scary.  You didn't want to look at the people sitting on the porches.  They didn't like outsiders much.  But walk just a few steps farther and there were wrought iron fences, broad lawns, and some of the most beautiful southern mansions I have ever seen in my life.

Old slave quarters and shanty towns and factory towns.  Later, large complexes of public housing.  American black ghettos.  Impoverished urban areas dominated by the descendants of  slaves and those who escaped.  The aftermath of slavery didn't just leave poverty, it helped create "those" parts of towns. It made it easier to segregate and isolate.  It made it easier to devalue and provide less public services, which makes these areas more vulnerable to natural disasters and crime.  Ask New Orleans.  Ask LA.

"Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave,
O'r the land of the free"

Celebrate our country and our freedom today.  But please, please be brave.  Be brave enough to really open your eyes and to tell the truth about what freedom, who's freedom, you celebrate.

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