The Endurance of Slavery’s Traumas and ‘Truths’
Conveners of the Wounds of History Conference asked participants to address the manner in which our forebears’ traumas continue to shape our lives, haunting our psyches, relationships with others, and cultures. The African Americans’ most agonizing traumas occurred during slavery, and through intergenerational transmission continue to cause pain. Given the endurance of racist modes of thinking and relating, however, African Americans must contend not only with what has been bestowed, but with present forms of racism as well. I shall discuss the wounds of slavery as well as the compounding of those wounds through contemporary racial insult. When we think of the oppression of Africans and the genocide of Indians, African Americans and Indians are the subjects of such reflections. But as we all know, it is whites who brought these traumas about (Frankenberg, 1993; Grand, 2015; Sterba, 1996), and the values and psychologies which made those acts possible need to be understood as well. It is not just that such attitudes and behaviors determined actions toward the noted groups in the past: these values and behaviors have determined whites’ perceptions of reality (Frankenberg, 1993), now as well as then. Whites too have suffered trauma, and just as generations of African Americans and Indians were impacted by their traumas, so too have generations of whites been affected by what they endured. Finally I contend that this history has been one of the elements determining white males’ management of painful affects. All of us, then – whites, Indians, blacks – have been determined by trauma, even if in different ways and to differing degrees. Moreover, to a large extent, this effect has taken place in unconscious processes. For example, while African Americans are clear about racism and know something about slavery, to a large extent we are unaware of how lasting
and determining its traumatic effects have been. And whites to a large degree are unaware of the manner in which their fundamental beliefs constrict and distort their thinking. I am concerned with what both groups don’t know, not only of the other, but of themselves. In the midst of preparing for the Conference I was reminded I had agreed to respond to a paper which, it turned out, was due at the same time. The paper was a thoughtful discussion of Lynne Jacobs’ white privilege (2014). That’s interesting, I thought, but what did white privilege have to do with African Americans, with me? Well, quite a lot, I discovered. The fact of the two deadlines proved serendipitous; for it was in the process of writing the first paper that I discovered a certain repair of self, and a clue to the question of speaking across difference. I will share some of that paper with you. The paper on privilege evoked memories of my days at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. Four African Americans, of whom I was one, integrated the 6th grade. It was the beginning of an intellectual journey which opened the world to me, and which brought about aspects of my life I can’t imagine living without. As the years went by I came to be deeply puzzled by the comparative confidence, light heartedness, and what, at eleven, I thought of as happiness in my white friends. What did they know that I did not? Was that difference due to their socio-economic class, to their parents? And might I come to possess what was so effortless for them? I could see differences between our parents, our homes, our financial resources. I was pretty certain my parents were more burdened. My mother could be short, was critical, and seemed always to have more to do than she could manage. But my friends’ parents weren’t always “nice.” They lived in houses largely near the University, we in an apartment in the black part of town. Both my parents were highly intelligent, had had some college, though never obtained degrees. But my feelings about class were largely assuaged by knowledge of how that difference had come to be. My father’s vocational options had been severely constricted by racism. I heard stories, as on occasion I slept in their bed until my father came home from the night shift. In hushed tones (they thought me asleep), he would relate the trials of a Negro janitor amongst white factory workers, many of whom had just migrated from the South, all of whom held jobs from which he was barred.