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Filling in the Gaps

Black History Month
Source: South Carolina Gazette, 18 March 1751 (courtesy of Charleston Library Society)

Do you think that it seems like slavery casts a pall over our national heritage?

It does.

Do you think that this could ever be removed?

No, of course it cannot be removed, and what it will give us is really a better understanding of who we are as a country. During my childhood, the history of the United States that I learned was a heroic history. It was about the accomplishments of the Americans: democratic freedoms and opportunity for the individual and technological superiority and all kinds of heroic aspects. Whereas what we really have is a country with a tragic history that is as powerful as its heroic history. The decimation of the Native Americans and slavery are the two great tragedies of American life. And what we have to do is to incorporate those realities in our understanding of who we are. And that's one reason why a book such as this gets so much attention, because people see that there's a missing part of the national story that has to be told.

So, no, we can't remove the shadow and I don't think we should try.

Could it be atoned for?

Perhaps, but I'm trying to take care of my own business at the level of one person and one family, and it's really been all that I have been able to muster merely to do that. It has taken just about every ounce of my energy even to do that. So whether the government can do something that can answer for this legacy on the rationale that it was under a continuing government that slavery survived for two centuries...whether the government should take some steps, I'm not sure.

...I think that the federal government should, at the appropriate time, apologize to black Americans for the enslavement of black people. I don't think it should happen now, because it would be hollow and it would not have the consensus that is needed. It would not be supported by the majority of white people. I think that, in time, perhaps a few years, once we've had enough national conversation about this legacy, then the government should take that step.

Do you think that you'll continue to write more on this subject or related ones?

I might, you know. I might write another piece of Southern history. That's what I intend to do, in fact, with my next book. So it might be something that I write about again.

Do you know of any other people taking steps similar to this to sort of open up dialogue?

A lot of folks, I can't say a lot, but a number of white people approach me when I give talks or they write me letters and they say that they come from a family with a similar story and they want to research it now. But I haven't followed up on what they've actually done. So I can't say whether people are actually being motivated to uncover the real stories of their family life or not. But I think that a number of people have taken this book as a sign that something can be done. In other words, we don't have to be ashamed of this history. Something can be done with it that's constructive.






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