THE BLOG
12/11/2014 12:02 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2015

Who Wants to Talk About That?

(Updated below)

"America, we have a problem."

So says Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine in the wake of the miscarriages of justice in Ferguson and Staten Island, and so say I. Many people agree, and the question is what to do.
For some time now, major voices in black America have been asking for conversation. Not just "Hello, how are you? Welcome to your seat on the bus," but something more like "Here's my experience of life in racist America. What's yours?"

Racism is so ingrained in the American experience that no one who has grown up here is free of it -- white, black, or anyone else. Until we acknowledge that, describe it, and share it across the racial divide we are not free. The legacy of slavery is still costing some blacks their lives, others their livelihoods, and most their full measure of dignity. As for us whites, that legacy, usually unacknowledged, costs us our full measure of honesty and leaves us woefully unprepared for the end of white privilege that lies in our future no matter what.

One of the voices calling for more and better conversation is Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of The Case for Reparations, a powerful article published in The Atlantic last June. "For the past 25 years," he wrote, "Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for 'appropriate remedies.'" Although the bill does not go so far as to call for reparations to be paid, only that there be a study, it has never gotten very far in the House of Representatives.
What Conyers, Coates, and many others most want is for America to take a serious and honest account of itself. Coates says:

Perhaps after a serious discussion and debate -- the kind that HR 40 proposes -- we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans. But we stand to discover much about ourselves in such a discussion -- and that is perhaps what scares us.. ... An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. ... What I'm talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.

The Coates article moved me to share publicly a key piece of my own legacy from the "peculiar institution" of slavery in America. So I wrote the article below for the quarterly publication of the community in which I live. The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York prompt me to share it more widely; I hope it will encourage others to acknowledge ways in which white privilege in America has affected their lives.

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Who Wants to Talk about THAT?

No one could have applauded longer than I, save only the film's producers, when 12 Years a Slave got the Academy Award as 2013's Best Picture. I would have given it a lot of other awards, too, but at least Lupita Nyong'o was justly honored as best actress in a supporting role.

I was hoping that the film would lead to a national dialog about the continuing importance of America's history of slavery. The closest we've come this year, perhaps, is a series on National Public Radio called The Race Card Project, in which people talk candidly about race, including a few stories about slavery in family histories. But for the most part, slavery is a subject people don't like to talk about, as I learned the hard way in the middle of my life.

Sometime around 1966 I got into an argument with my mother at the dinner table at my childhood home in Tennessee. It started with somebody's reference to Martin Luther King, Jr., who was then very active. My mother said that he was a well-meaning man but was "making too much trouble." I replied that we needed that kind of trouble in order to make progress on civil rights. To my surprise, she defended what she had said. At that point we both dug in. The conversation became an argument. I said something about the evils of slavery, and I heard her say that slavery was "not so bad" because masters had treated their slaves well. This really annoyed me, and I asked how she could say such a thing, and then she said, "Your great grandfather, for whom you are named, owned slaves, and he was a nice man!"

It hit me, pardon the expression, like a ton of bricks. I was over 40 years old, and I had never heard this. I was the adoptive father of an African-American child. I had grown up hearing many stories about Thomas Ambrose Faw, my great grandfather and namesake, my mother's grandfather, who had built a store in what was later my birthplace, Johnson City, Tennessee, where he had settled after coming over the mountains from North Carolina. He was a hero in my imagination. And now you're telling me he owned SLAVES?

I left the table in anger and confusion. I went to my bedroom and lay down with my head spinning. Why had they never told me? Why had they let me grow up thinking that OUR family had NOTHING to do with slavery? Why did they never tell? Why? Why?

I worried over this for what seemed like hours before another question sneaked itself into my mind: Why did I never ask?

I was not an unsophisticated person. I had an excellent education, including post-graduate study. I was already a professor somewhere. I had a mixed-race family of my own. I had grown up in the South, and I had never thought to inquire whether there was slavery in my family's history.

And then I thought about Germany, where I had gone with the army in World War 2. I knew that there were people there who did not know -- really did not know -- that there were death camps in their own towns. They could have known, but they did not want to know, and so they didn't. It is quite possible for people to avoid knowing what they don't want to know. I had been like that. The knowledge was "inconvenient."

America is haunted by the ghost of slavery. Most of us whites would rather not think about it, or even know about it. Most Americans who are black would rather not talk about slavery with whites.

If we whites do think about it, we like to imagine, as I did myself, that slavery is about THEM or THEN and has nothing to do with US or NOW.

Do we know the history of slavery in New Jersey? Do we know why New Jersey balked at ratifying the 14th Amendment (the one that guaranteed citizenship to former slaves born in the USA), rescinding its ratification in 1868 and not re-ratifying until 2003?

The legacy of slavery affects all parts of America, both white and not white, and warps our views. Do we know that? Do we want to know it? Do we want to inconvenience ourselves by talking about it? It's not about guilt. It's about deeper understanding of where we are and where we need to go.

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Update 12/24/2014: A friend responded to my blog above by suggesting that I look up Tadeuscz Kościuszko, which I did on Wikipedia. I found an amazing story. This Polish military man did heroic things as an officer in the Continental Army of the American Revolution. He was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson. In his will he directed that most of his estate be used to free African American slaves and educate them. The will was thwarted by the American court system and the reluctance of some of his friends, including Jefferson, to execute the provisions of the will. The sad story is a reminder of how deeply slavery was embedded in America and the Constitution until the Civil War and how its effects are still with us, especially in the reluctance of most of us white Americans to own up to the reality of white privilege.