Important Conversations: What Does it Mean to Come to Terms With the History of Slavery?

This blog is intended as a reply to my friend and fellow historian Nick Sacco and his blog, “What Does it Mean to Come to Terms With the History of American Slavery?” I encourage others to reply, too! 

As Nick said, with this question “the tenuous intersections between past, present, objectivity, and activism all came to a head in one very complex question.”

First, in order to come to terms, we must fully, without exception, accept that enslavement existed in the United States and was interwoven throughout the nation, South and North. As a slave society, laws, religious practices, educational systems and mores, celebrations, and economic practices, to name just a few examples, were all developed with enslavement a cornerstone the cornerstone.

The United States as a modern nation state was born at a time when enslavement was thriving and considered perfectly normal. At this same time, racialized (and sexualized) science supported notions that Africans were inferior beings. Johann Blumenbach and his students were among the forerunners of codifying such ideas that are now considered pseudoscience.    

People and institutions have got to accept that the United States is forever scarred by all of its actions.

As a very imperfect parallel but hopefully illustrative, I have had four surgeries. Brain surgery was the first one at age four. In ways that are still present every day, this surgery (and the others) have forever changed things in dramatic ways.

No one would deny the longterm effects of such surgeries. Why then do we deny legacies of enslavement?

Coming to terms with this history (and enslavement) means, very simply, accepting that it happened and that it can never be erased from the cultural, economic, and political DNA and artifacts of the United States. 

And accepting that enslavement existed means coming to full terms with where, when, and how it existed. While 1619 is the widely-agreed upon date for the beginnings of enslavement in the British Colonial North American colonies, recent studies have suggested it existed earlier than that. Additionally, enslavement in Colonial Spain, present day areas of Texas and Florida for example, had enslavement a century before 1619 – although by no means fully established until much later. As I always enjoy doing, we must challenge the typical geographical and chronological boundaries of United States History. Recognizing the middle passage and DNA are important, too.  Coming to terms also means having a public aware that History evolves in good and bad ways (consider Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind phenomenons).

Coming to terms with enslavement means placing the United States’s institution into larger World trajectories. Slavery has existed for thousands of years and continues to exist. One difficulty with studying enslavement then or now is that we’re not supposed to see it, so to speak, and few first-hand accounts exist because enslavers see “property,” not humans, and said property can have no feelings or thoughts. Because of this difficulty, it is frequently all too easy for deniers to deny. But, before we move forward, we must emphasize that slavery in places such as the United States was very different than enslavement as it existed before the 1500s in the New World or even before the late 1700s when the United States was more a “society with slaves,” not a “slave society.” 

Additionally in order to come to terms with slavery, comprehensive stories need to be told where possible. Some people I hypothesize are turned off by only hearing about enslavement because it is such a tragic chapter. While enslavement is absolutely most tragic and these stories need to be told, we all need wider conversations and celebrations about those not individuals racialized as Black who were not enslaved or who accomplished documented, awesome things -without exaggerating. Black individuals had and used their agency! At the same time, too often historical memories jump from enslavement to the 50s and 60s. The time in-between–the Culture of Segregation and its practices of re-enslavement, re-disenfranchisement, lynching, and rape–are too often neglected or highly abridged. These narratives, along with what is widely-known as the New Jim Crow today, are important so that people have an opportunity to realize that enslavement is just one of several periods of tragedy in the United States’s past and treatment of Blacks. And, sadly, I don’t really think that many United Statesians know anything about all of this. 

Coming to terms with enslavement also means recognizing the United States’s attempts to enslave Indians and its mistreatment of every group outside of the status quo. And this is where it gets especially, even more difficult and frustrating. People are very resistant to accepting their nation, their body (to use the surgery example — which considering notions of civil religion might be really applicable) is guilty of so many wrong-doings. Like with surgery, of course, no one alive today is in any way responsible or caused actions in the past, but, nonetheless, we are forced to live with the resulting changes.

Coming to terms with enslavement means talking about racism and systems of privilege. People drive me nuts, and they are very misguided when espousing “if-you-stopped-talking-about-racism-it-would-go-away” rhetoric. Talking about tumors does not cause tumors to grow, to once again use our surgery rough, very imperfect parallel. Productive conversations always, only help.                   

Nick asks:

But what are the future implications for society’s coming to terms with slavery?
If society started sincerely coming to terms with enslavement, the future implications would only be positive. In addition to the above, such coming to terms would by necessity require society en masse to commit to meaningful and long-term individual, social, cultural, and institutional reform. And I don’t know if society is prepared for or even can take such a long-term commitment. Our
governments cannot even plan ahead when it comes to schools or roads.     

“Does it matter whether or not we acknowledge the past so that we can ensure a more just future?”
I don’t think it’s a matter of whether or not it matters, we are able to live only because we acknowledge the past. To take a mundane example, I read Nick’s blog last night and planned to reply today. The same thing with memory and historical memory. Our lives are completely full of the past – it’s what allows us to exist. These same basic notions apply on larger scales, including when examining enslavement. Acknowledging the past, then, is not automatically connected to a more just or unjust future. Arguably, most people use a certain kind of acknowledgment about the past to perpetuate their own interests–although without fully realizing what they are doing and how they are hurting themselves.
Evidence matters.    

“Does coming to terms with slavery mean historians should be advocating for policy reforms and other collective actions like peaceful protests?”
Absolutely! As “guardians” of historical literacy,
historical evidence, and the like, historians should establish and use their voices to try and make the world better. Historians, and other scholars, have ethical obligations to try and make the world a better place and  to “talk” to large audiences. Activism, guided by evidence and sincerity, is always good. Such efforts and interactions with publics, even if not directly about enslavement and coming to terms, would probably have the consequence of helping there, too. Maybe that is part of the solution….solutions that work toward equity for Blacks by somewhat/occasionally having past racism and enslavement somewhat foregrounded, per se. 

“What can I say and not say as a professional historian in uniform speaking on behalf of the federal government to the public?”
Legally, I guess, this depends on official policies. But, we all know there is a gap between the de facto and the de jure. A balancing act is in place for sure, and this applies to anyone in any kind of teaching position, especially when feelings are especially up in the air. Ethically, we should, of course, only say what is best known based on evidence. But again, feelings come into play. Discussions around enslavement are always difficult, and there is not always time to allow people, White or Black or of other racializations, to get their emotions out in order to then possibly move to content. In order to come to terms with enslavement, people have to be able to talk about the past in reasonable, coherent ways.  


So, concluding and going back to the original question – there is no one, no easy, no easily stated answer to the very important question about coming to terms with enslavement. Enslavement is forever part of the tapestry that makes the United States. By not coming to terms with enslavement, which is possibly impossible or an effort that would take a few generations, we will only have more national tragedies like what just happened in South Carolina prompting important #BlackLivesMatter movements.