01/20/2009 10:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Black and White in America I: The Tribal Hoax

In the year 1835, a young man named Phineas traveled from New York to Philadelphia to buy himself a slave.

In 1835 buying and selling slaves was an ordinary business in cities like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. If you had some money, let's say enough to buy a good horse, you could easily buy a human slave and become a "slave-owner" -- a measure of status, even if abolitionist groups occasionally marched in the streets singing Christian hymns against slavery. Hymns or no hymns, the public at large liked the idea of slavery. Abolitionist parades hardly ever finished without a few cracked heads and blood streaming over linen. In Boston, the journalist William Lloyd Garrison was hauled out of a meeting after an abolitionist speech and pulled through the streets with a rope around his neck.

Some time before his trip to Philadelphia, our young man Phineas, twenty-five years old, had moved with his wife and children from Connecticut down to New York to seek his fortune. He started work as a commission "drummer" for retail shops, then ran a small boarding house -- all of it without much commercial success.

Phineas was gregarious and he had many friends. In the summer of 1835, a friend named Coley visited Phineas and talked about how he'd recently sold his financial interest in a black female slave. This woman, Coley said, was remarkable. She was 161 years old and apparently she'd been George Washington's nurse. She was now owned in full by a Kentucky gentleman named Lindsay, and Lindsay was currently exhibiting his slave in the Masonic Hall in Philadelphia as a "natural curiosity" -- the public invited by advertisements in The Pennsylvania Inquirer to come to the exhibit and have a look at the woman for a small entrance fee.

When Coley told Phineas that Lindsay wanted to sell the woman, Phineas was immediately interested. He was eager to make his fortune and now he had an idea how to do it. Without delay, he hurried to Philadelphia to have a look at the exhibited female slave. He thought she looked even older than her advertised age. She was toothless, totally blind, and she could hardly move her body. But she seemed in good health, in good spirits, and she talked easily about her caring for George Washington during his infancy. Phineas was satisfied. He haggled with Lindsay, and they finally agreed on a price of $1,000, half cash, half to be paid later. Phineas now owned a female slave.

This Phineas was Phineas Taylor Barnum, later known around the world as P. T. Barnum, the founder of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The female slave, Joice Heth, was P. T. Barnum's first "human zoo" acquisition, the first "natural curiosity" that would make his career as a showman. For a thousand dollars he'd bought another human being the way modern zoos buy bears and birds. Of course the woman's longevity was a hoax. When Joice Heth died soon afterward, she was probably no more than 80 years old.

The human species is evidently vulnerable to hoaxes. Going back to the dawn of history is another hoax, the tribal hoax that your own human group is innately superior to other groups, that you and your group have inherited superior genes that make you better than many of the people around you. It was the tribal hoax that led Phineas T. Barnum to believe he had a right to own another human being the way a farmer owns a cow and that led the crowds at the Barnum circus to accept the idea that Joice Heth could be owned by someone.

The tribal hoax is one of the profound tragedies of the human condition, one that has often boiled up into institutionalized madness, mob violence, religious inquisitions, witch-hunts and witch-burnings, Nazi gas chambers, tribal genocide, and thousands of mutilations and lynchings of American blacks for no reason except crazy hatred. And not only blacks, but others in America as well. In 1867 in Helena, Montana, a woman named Chinese Mary was the first Asian in America to be burned to death by whites. Eighteen years later, in Rock Springs, Wyoming, 28 Chinese laborers were killed in a riot by Irish and German laborers, killed for no reason except irritation about competition for jobs.

Barack Obama, half-black, half-white, will be inaugurated today as President of the United States. Some people have called this the end of racism in America, or "post-racial" America, and so on. But if you look and listen carefully you see the reality is otherwise. We still have a crowd of media people hawking a subtext of racism. They pervade TV broadcasting, radio, newspapers, and magazines. We have a similar crowd in politics in both houses of Congress. They were here on January 19, 2009 and they will still be here on January 21, 2009. Racist politicians will last as long as there are racist constituencies that elect them to office. Racist media people will last as long as there are racist media tycoons who tolerate and recruit them.

All of these people are a Fifth Column of hatred in American society and they will not be gone tomorrow. Maybe some day they will indeed be gone, but it will not happen until the American people develop in their very bones an intolerance of intolerance, a revulsion at prejudice, and a willingness to condemn and socially ostracize the hate-mongers.

We are not free yet. The tribal hoax, the hoax about human groups, continues to infect us. We've come a long way from prehistory and primitive man and his tribal hoaxes, a long way but not yet far enough.

Meanwhile, on this day, Inauguration Day, we take a step forward into our destiny.