Should We Apologize For Slavery?

by Janis Cortese

I can see it now. The second I say yes, I'm going to be flung into the round file of political correctness. Someone out there is going to say, "I didn't do it! I'm not going to apologize for something I didn't do!" And they're going to develop this picture of me as your typical hippie liberal.


Okay, let's get some stuff straight -- I'm white, more or less. Italian descent, not quite white enough to keep from being grossly stereotyped in every goddamned movie you can find, but close enough for jazz. I'm 32. I hate hippies. And I'm trying to talk to white people here. Now, let's move on.

What does "I'm sorry" mean?

Apologies mean more than taking personal responsibility for something. Have you ever had someone come up to you and say, "My mom died last night." What was your response? "Oh, my God, I'm so sorry! Oh, that's awful!" And you weren't taking personal responsibility for killing her, were you? You were expressing sympathy that this terrible thing happened.

Slavery is the same thing. When discussing this, your typical African American isn't telling you, "My mom died." What they are saying is, "My entire people were kidnapped against their will, worked to death, murdered, tortured, beaten, raped repeatedly for several hundred years, and we're still trying to get past it."

Isn't that worth a sympathetic, "Oh, I'm so sorry! That's terrible, that should never have happened!" Certainly, the problem is compounded by the fact that people who looked like us did it to people who looked like them precisely because they looked like that. But that shouldn't matter, and in all honesty, it doesn't matter.

You're not expressing personal responsibility for slavery, nor am I. My family wasn't entirely in this country until 1917. We had nothing at all to do with slavery, so I can't apologize personally for it. But I can express sympathy, acknowledge that it happened, that it was awful and unjust and evil, and that it should never have come about.

That's what "I'm sorry" means. That I'm so terribly sorry that these things happened. That they shouldn't have happened. That it's a crying goddamned shame that anyone still has to deal with the repercussions of that hideous blot on history, now, over a hundred years since it was abolished.

Isn't it? Can anyone reading this now think anything other? If you've ever express sadness and sympathy for Holocaust victims in the past, were you calling yourself a Nazi? Of course not.

So what if it's not your mess?

It's the end of the day, and you just got home. You're tired, work was hellish, and you broke a heel. You open the front door, and step right onto a load of dog barf. Rover got into the trash, ate a margarine wrapper, and horked it up on the carpet -- the new carpet you just bought to match the sofa.

Your teenaged kid has been home from school since 3pm. Didn't clean it up, though. You confront the kid: "You must have seen this! Why didn't you clean it up?!"

Your kid replies: "Why should I clean it up? It's not my mess!"

Now, honestly. What would your response be? Probably not too charitable, right? You'd probably say: "Who cares if it's not your mess, damn it! You saw it, clean it up! It's not going to clean itself up, is it?" Your kid may not be responsible for the mess, but s/he's sure responsible for cleaning it up! And it's immature, spoiled, and bratty to think otherwise.

Similarly, no -- no one alive today is personally responsible for slavery. We didn't do it -- but thanks to its existence for two hundred years in this country, we're stuck dealing with the repercussions. No, we didn't make the mess. But damn it, that shouldn't keep us from cleaning it up.

We're not responsible for slavery. What we are responsible for is fixing the problems that we inherited because of it. And yes, we are, each one of us, black and white, personally and intimately responsible for that. Because, once again, this mess isn't going to clean itself up. Like it or not, we inherited it. Let's get working on it, shall we?

So yes, I'm sorry for slavery, just like I'm sorry for any injustice. I'm terribly, terribly sorry that that awful, evil, terrible thing was done to anyone. And while I'm not responsible for it, I'm responsible for cleaning up after it.

As are we all.

Copyright © 2000 by Janis Cortese

02/10/07 at 1:39