Apologizing for slavery and segregation

You may not know it living in the United States, but this year most of what historians call the Atlantic World is commemorating the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

In Ghana, one of the African countries from which millions were enslaved, an international conference is planned this summer at the Cape Coast slave fort.

In March, across the ocean, a special ceremony termed “the funeral of the ancestors” observed the bicentenary this past March in Jamaica, the final destination of some of those slaves.

And, in the United Kingdom itself, outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair said the commemorations across his country that same month were “an opportunity … to express our deep sorrow and regret for our nation’s role,” according to the BBC News.

So, why the silence here in the U.S., where slavery continued for nearly 50 years after the British Parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in March 1807?

The U.S. ruling class is notorious for resisting any acknowledgement of its past misdeeds, from the decimation of Native Americans to the atomic bombing of the Japanese. When Bill Clinton tested the waters by suggesting slavery was wrong during a 1998 trip to Uganda, then House Republican Whip Tom DeLay lashed out at the president and the discussion abruptly ended.

And while several states now have passed bills apologizing for slavery — most recently, Alabama, where the resolution expresses “profound regret” — the Confederate flag still flies across parts of the South as a reminder that many politicians deny the crimes of slavery and the Jim Crow segregation which followed it until about 40 years ago.

If freshman Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) has his way, however, the U.S. will be forced to confront its shameful past through House Resolution 194, “Apologizing for the enslavement and racial segregation of African-Americans,” which he authored. The measure states, in part, “that the House of Representatives: (1) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow; (2) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors … [and] (3) expresses its commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans.”

The Memphis Democrat hopes his resolution will shed light on the persistent legacies of slavery and segregation today, such as discrimination in housing and employment. His resolution also has the potential to educate Americans about the key role slavery played in the development of the U.S. and the debt owed to African Americans.

Marxists understand that the surplus from slave labor, performed over hundreds of years by Africans in the most institutionalized and violent system of slavery in history, fueled the rise of capitalism. Africans not only worked on the cotton plantations of the South, but more importantly brought with them expertise in iron-making, rice cultivation and indigo manufacturing, sectors which were the foundation of the early U.S. economy.

Whenever calls for an apology are made by activists, the U.S. government and media counter with arguments appealing to racist elements, intended to divide the working class. Search the Internet and you will discover many examples of the ultra-right-wing propaganda posted against Rep. Cohen’s bill.

What is the basis for this hostility? On a practical level, the ruling class is concerned about the financial consequences, as demands for reparations surely will follow an official apology. And, ideologically, recognizing the debt owed to the descendants of slaves would shatter the myth that the U.S. was built only through the ingenuity and hard work of capitalists.

The 200th anniversary of the slave trade’s abolition offers a symbolic opportunity for the U.S. government to apologize for the injustices committed against African Americans. Of course, slavery did not come to an end merely because, after enslaving over 12 million Africans, European capitalists suddenly decided the trade was immoral. The rise of industrial capitalism demanded new forms of labor — so-called “free” labor, but in reality wage labor — and it is not a coincidence that the center of the abolition movement, England, also was the first capitalist power.

Moreover, Africans played a pivotal role in ending slavery themselves, through everyday forms of resistance to slave revolts to outright revolution in places like Haiti. And, let us not forget that the “illegal” slave trade lasted well until the end of the 19th century, and slavery was sanctioned in many parts of the Americas until then, too.

Yet, it is significant that imperialist leaders like Blair are marking the anniversary and equally striking that the nation which prospered most from slavery, the U.S., has yet to formally concede its own despicable past.

So, in this bicentennial year of abolition, let the U.S. commemoration take the form of Rep. Cohen’s resolution. While an official apology will not eradicate the racist realities of capitalism, it will initiate a national dialogue about the legacies of slavery and segregation, especially crucial in the aftermath of episodes like the Don Imus rant.

Encourage your representative to support this measure — which as of late May had nearly 100 co-sponsors in the House and was under consideration by the Judiciary Committee — as an important step towards righting the wrongs of the past.

Dennis Laumann (dlaumann @memphis.edu) is associate professor of African history at the University of Memphis.