Less finger pointing and careful advice needed

Seventeen years ago, President Bush stood on Goree Island off the coast of Senegal and talked about slavery: “For hundreds of years on this island, peoples of different continents met in fear and cruelty. Today we gather in respect and friendship, mindful of past wrongs and dedicated to the advance of human liberty,” said the president, who continued, “One of the largest migrations of history was also one of the greatest crimes of history.” 

That speech wasn’t good enough for critics of America. The radio stations of the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Radio Holland all echoed the international call for America to apologize for slavery, and lamented our president missing his chance. Right or wrong, those critics missed the point we now see all too clearly: That kinder, more open, less racial, GOP has effectively allowed its very principles to be hijacked to a darker place in 2020.

Now, it is true that our practices of slavery continued beyond what could be seen as historical practice (as onerous as that may be), took a Civil War to outlaw and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of our best men and women. And certainly, our practices of institutionalized racial inequality were then permitted to continue well into what was called an Age of Enlightenment (we stood on the moon before we outlawed racial discrimination). However, the truth is that the USA did not create slavery here or anywhere.

Never mind that some African nations still practiced legal slavery into the 1970s (Tunisia for one). Never mind that the Arab tribes had been capturing slaves along the east coast of Africa for millennia. Never mind that the very nations now calling for America to apologize continued slavery into the 1860s and were the original European slavers in the first place. If anybody should be apologizing it should be the remnants of the Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company. The Germans simply took slaves and used up their lives in construction projects and mines in Tanganyika and Zambia. Let’s not forget the Spanish and Portuguese who captured and used more slaves than any others in the conquests of the Caribbean, South and Central America. Meantime, the media are filled with the need for the slave trader peoples to apologize for slavery, seeing it as a step to true repentance.

Do you ask the drug end users on the streets of America to apologize for the cocaine fields of Columbia, the poppy fields in Afghanistan, the drug smugglers of Mexico and the criminals distributing the stuff on our streets? Do the drug users, especially the “social users,” carry some measure of blame? It is mostly illegal and that’s their punishment if caught. Should they also be responsible for the terrors outside of America: The growing of drug plants (cocaine or heroin), the terrorizing of indigenous peoples for criminal intent, the killings and the end  pollution of our youth? Illegal drug dealing is a deliberate evil perpetrated on an innocent population who, once hooked, may be considered culpable in part, but are, in fact, trapped in their addiction. They need to be weaned off, not told they are also evil.

So too with slavery. The evil of slavery was historic, generational and came from a pre-modern-civilized-past of all mankind. Some of those practices took far too long to fade out or be eradicated. Mamouka, a Tunisian slave, was rescued in 1972 by friends of ours living in Spain. They bought her for $50 in Tunis and smuggled her back to their house in Estepona (south of Spain). It took them six years to get her a passport. When last we heard, Mamouka still couldn’t grasp the idea of self-determination or freedom. Her “owner” Tera Davy persisted in her education, perhaps does still.

Stamping out slavery was achieved through international pressure. Britain had to stop being a slaver nation. So too, Spain, Portugal and Holland had to give up a lucrative practice. Once that cessation was achieved, the addicted had to go through withdrawal: The enormous bloodshed of the Civil War and the 150 years since continue a weaning process of wrong-headed institutionalized racist notions. And, like the addicted slave owners of the deep South, so too the ex-slaves and their families have had to grasp notions foreign to their millennia-old past: To learn what freedom really is. Now that they begin to see what are their rights, we need to stand by them more than ever before. Freedom is both liberating and scary, unfettered and fraught with responsibility. To wean a peoples off of both takes a community effort and education. 

A little less finger pointing and a whole lot of careful advice might go a long way today — always coupled with true encouragement. For their lives do matter — at least as much as every free person in America.


Writer Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.

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