Point of View Columns

Why America Needs to Buy This Book

Having recently finished reading “Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead, I was absolutely pleased to learn that this book, in addition to having won the National Book Award, had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Indeed “Railroad” is that rare combination of artistry, passion and genius that makes it a book that can be simultaneously savored and devoured.

“Railroad” is a work of historical fiction that begins by chronicling the horrific banality of slavery in America. An America where torture, damnation and misery were the ordinary characteristics of the everyday life of a black slave. From “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to “Twelve Years A Slave” to “Roots”, the slime of America’s Original Sin and its Lingering Stain has been told and retold, but America has neither fully accepted the reality of its origins or the absolute fact that the Shadow of Slavery dims the lights of freedom and decency which are supposed to illuminate this land. And that is why America needs to buy “Underground Railroad”.

That is because at some unknowable point this work fiction literally jumps the rails and becomes a work of fantasy woven into an unforgettable fable. But with every word and every page, Colson Whitehead never lets the reader forget that for black Americans in that era, slavery was a constant nightmare – a nightmare from which there was no awakening.

And it is the constancy of horror and fear and humiliation and abject surrender that accompanies the reader on every single page that in turn forces the reader to understand that slavery was not simply a bad but best forgotten chapter in American’s history. “Railroad” has the potential to help every American understand that the institutionalized, regularized and degradation of black Americans for centuries has deformed the character of this country to this very day. And the truth is that this deformity cannot be cured until it is recognized in the first place.

For those who would contend that the combination of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution freed and empowered the men and women who were formerly chattel, “Railroad” clarifies matters. For it is not possible for an entire nation to either enslave or countenance the enslavement of human beings  and then suddenly proclaim and amend a new vision and a new day.

Because it is clear that the racial disparities that prevail in these United States 152 years after the end of the Civil War do not exist because of inferiority of black Americans or a lack of remediating strategies ranging from legislation to Supreme Court decisions to black capitalism to affirmative action. The disparities exist because the equality of black Americans is not a fully accepted fact – indeed it is still subject to dispute, particularly when that dispute is thinly veiled in sociological jargon.

Disparities in incarceration rates, mortality rates and unemployment are the strange fruit of the slavery vineyards that were planted centuries ago. The insults and venom that were leveled at the first African American president had little to do with politics and everything to do with his genetic connection to former chattel.

The mandatory reading of “Railroad” will allow all Americans, black and white, to see in the book the very clear connection between the language, behavior and spirit of the overseer and the owner in the current political discourse. Because as has been seen in Germany and Bosnia and Armenia and now in Syria, if it is possible to deny the humanity of another human being, it is then possible to do anything and everything to that human being.

And that is why, in addition to the well-deserved accolades, every American should read “Underground Railroad” as a very important first step in finally finding a way to bury the past and to create a future that every American deserves.

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Point of View Columns

“Twelve Years a Slave”

It is rare that a book, a song or a movie can change an entire country, but “Twelve Years a Slave” may just be that rare movie. Recounting in painstaking detail the horrors of racial slavery in America, “Twelve Years a Slave” is relevant not only for its historical narrative but also because it provides understanding as to where the United States is in terms of racial relations today – and why.

From “Birth of a Nation” to “Gone with the Wind” to “Roots” to “Mandingo” to “Django Unchained”, there have been a number of movies that have endeavored to convey elements of the American slave era, this country’s Original Sin. “Birth of a Nation” justified slavery. “Gone with the Wind” contextualized and sanitized slavery. “Roots” recognized slavery. “Mandingo” exploited slavery. “Django Unchained” caricaturized slavery.

“Twelve Years a Slave” demolishes the comforting myths and soothing lies regarding slavery. By telling the story of slavery absolutely and clearly through the eyes (and heart) of a slave, “Twelve Years” permits every viewer to step over a blood soaked and tear stained threshold into the horrible hell of American race based slavery.

Every viewer, regardless of race, will leave the movie theater having a very real idea of what it must have felt like to be a slave – to be property, to be the subject of indifferent cruelty and cruel indifference. Every viewer of this movie will walk to the edge of an ocean of pain, with wave after wave of assaults on one’s very humanity crashing upon the shore of their consciousness – and subconscious.

Insofar as motion pictures are concerned, it is has been said that “Schindler’s List” has provided the most vivid – and painful – understanding of what it must have been to be a Jewish victim of the Holocaust. In that same vein, “Twelve Years as a Slave” provides the most gut-wrenching, spirit-devouring rendition of what it must have been like to be a victim of American racial slavery. If only to understand the real history of these United States of America, “Twelve Years” must be seen by every American who would prefer to live with the truth instead of a myth.

“Twelve Years” is also important in terms of understanding racial relations in this country today. It must be understood that the cruel and inhuman and barbaric institution of American race based slavery stained this country for over two hundred years. But the barbarism and inhumanity and cruelty did not evanesce upon the end of the Civil War or upon the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery.

What followed after the Civil War was another century of institutionalized racism taking the form of legalized racial degradation (segregation), state sponsored terrorism (Ku Klux Klan and rampant lynchings) and the general, anesthetized denial of a problem by most white Americans who did not live in the South. The passage of landmark civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965 made much of this horrific activity illegal. The spirit of racism cannot be outlawed and three centuries of indifference and dehumanization do not simply vanish into thin air, especially when they reside in the hearts and minds of men and women who, to this very day, embrace a culture that was built on the blood, sweat and tears of black slaves.

That is why there is nothing quaint or cute about the celebration of the Confederacy or the parading of the Confederate flag. The Confederate States of America initiated and fought the Civil War in order to protect and preserve American race based slavery. When anyone celebrates the Confederacy or parades the Confederate flag, they are clinging to a blood-soaked and sin-stained rag of a tradition that was literally a crime against humanity.

There are many reasons for the disparity that exists regarding the human condition of black Americans as opposed to their white counterparts. There can be no argument that there is so much more that black Americans must do in order to achieve and secure real progress.

But there should be no doubt that the ground upon which all Americans stand covers the bones and blood and tears and fears of millions of black men, women and children who were born, lived and died as slaves. And there should be no doubt that America’s Original Sin should not be set aside as an unfortunate episode in this country’s history.

The legacy of slavery lives with us all – to this very day.

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