Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Slavery, America's Original Sin

"[A]lthough 'The Civil War' may have ended with a surrender, the issues over which the war was fought are far from settled.

'I think in some ways, the subsequent films have convinced me only more certainly of our thing about the war, that it was the central event. Race is one of the things of American culture. I’ve taken a lot of criticism for saying that,' [documentarian Ken] Burns told me when we met in a New York editing studio in May. 'So, doing ‘Jackie Robinson,’ has echoes with Ferguson. Doing ‘Central Park Five’ has echoes back to Emmett Till and some of the realities of slavery. All of the way the Ferguson municipality behaved to its own citizens, its majority citizens, is not dissimilar to the way Jim Crow sharecroppers experienced the pernicious substitute for slavery: ‘Well, if we can’t own you, we have to pay you something, it won’t be very much, but we’re going to own every other aspect of you. And by the way now, since you’re no longer my property, I can kill you with impunity, because you’re not valuable to me.’ … And while there was no law that protected African Americans in slavery, and there were supposedly laws that protected them afterwards, they weren’t applied, and in many cases as we learn with chilling regularity, still aren’t applied.' . .

Burns doesn’t have much patience for narratives about the Civil War that suggest that its causes were anything other than race, pointing squarely at the South Carolina articles of secession: 'Is there the words ‘states’ rights’ in their articles of secession? No. Is the word ‘slavery’ there? Yes. Many times.'

'People say, ‘Oh, it’s about states’ rights.’ ‘It’s about agricultural economics.’ ‘It’s about political differences.’ ‘It’s about social differences,'' he said, running through the list of justifications. 'Yeah, the social differences based on a society that keeps people free or doesn’t pay their laborers. That pays for work or doesn’t pay for work. Right? That creates huge, different societal differences. And certainly it’s political, because as the equilibrium of power that the South had dominated in the presidency and in Congress is being challenged by new states that are increasingly less interested in slavery, they’re interested in taking their ball and going home. That’s the political reality. And the economic stuff? Yeah, they’re afraid that someone’s going to pass a law that’s going to deny them their single greatest wealth, which is the ownership of 4 million other human beings, in 1861 … Slavery is why the Civil War happened. And slavery is still this original sin that Americans have to figure out, somehow, how to transcend and overcome.”

And he’s sharply aware of the way these kinds of obfuscations persist in contemporary political discourse.

'So if the president wasn’t born in the United States, that’s another way of saying the n-word. If he’s Muslim, that’s another way of saying the n-word. All of these things are code, new racial code, for words that now have, at least in public, lost their respectability,' Burns continued, marveling at the way the end of the Civil War only forced white supremacist language and practices to mutate to fit their new circumstances.

Read the Washington Post, From slavery to Ferguson, Ken Burns sees an unfinished Civil War