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[Excerpt] 'When the Past Is Never Gone'

September 03, 2015

Guard_superdome_katrinaAs people around the country mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it's entirely appropriate that many should feel the need to pause and reflect on what the storm and its aftermath reveal about our troubled racial past. The images broadcast to the world from a flooded New Orleans — of panicked families stranded on rooftops, of National Guardsmen ignoring pleas for assistance from the mostly African-American crowds gathered at the squalid Superdome, of armed sheriffs denying safe passage to New Orleanians trying to flee the city on foot — were a reminder in 2005, as they are today, that the past is always with us.

That suggestion, as Earl Lewis, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, notes, has been advanced many times, by many people. In an essay accompanying the foundation's most recent annual report, Lewis, paraphrasing Edward Ball, the author of Slaves in the Family, writes: "[T]he policing of black bodies, and the legislated use of extralegal actions, has its roots in an earlier America, where every black person was assumed to be some white person's property and many whites presumed themselves deputized to reconnect property and owner." It is an observation that lays bare the immorality of America's "peculiar institution" — and one that many would argue has no relevance to our own "post-racial" century. Lewis, a noted social historian and Foundation Center board member, isn't one of them. Like an "apparition out of time," he writes, "slavery's ghost — and the specter of race and difference — never seem to leave us."

One way to make sense of "slavery’s lingering presence," Lewis suggests, is to ask and try to answer questions about the institution through the scholarship of the humanities and the arts. For half a century, the Mellon Foundation has been one of the important private sponsors of such inquiry. Indeed, under Lewis's leadership, it has reaffirmed its commitment to scholarship and the humanities. Why? Because, in a world characterized by rapid change, the humanities matter — maybe more than ever. Foundation Center, for its part, collects and analyzes data related to how foundations like Mellon address social challenges deeply rooted in the past, from black male achievement to education reform to diversity in philanthropy. Philanthropy, by itself, can't solve these problems, any more than it can erase the legacy of slavery. But without a solid grasp of what it has done to address racial inequities in the past — and is trying to do in the present — it cannot expect to achieve its aims in the future.


"When the Past Is Never Gone"

In his novel Requiem for a Nun William Faulkner observed, "The past is never dead. It is not even past."  That short, sweet phrase forces us to confront our own notions — or wishes — about how far we have left behind the earlier periods in our history. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times ("Slavery's Enduring Resonance," March 15, 2015), writer and social observer Edward Ball tells us that the spasmodic racial eruptions that seem to grab and throttle us occur because the ghosts of slavery have not been exorcised. Ball, a descendant of one of the wealthiest slave-owning families in South Carolina and author of the highly acclaimed Slaves in the Family, a story of his family and the black people they enslaved, argues that the policing of black bodies, and the legislated use of extralegal actions, has its roots in an earlier America, where every black person was assumed to be some white person's property and many whites presumed themselves deputized to reconnect property and owner.

Many would disagree with Ball, arguing that slavery's luminance is faint, hinting that its evocation is somehow archaic and out of place. For many, slavery seems the ultimate example of a bygone era.  More than once in my 30-year career as a university professor I had a student say, "Slavery, that was about then, and this is about now." Or, "my ancestors came in the 20th century; they had nothing to do with slavery. Don't blame me." My lectures about human cargoes, crop rotations, reciprocal relations, economic benefit, cultural adaptation, and nearly 250 years of forced labor seemed incongruous to some of those young people, who were growing up in a world in which everyone was encouraged to be like Mike — the late 20th century's global icon, Michael Jordan.

Our distance from slavery has ostensibly increased significantly in recent years, in spite of the four-year remembrance of the Civil War in many regions. This is the digital age and the age of the human genome, when information flows fluidly and quickly. A "generation" is 18 months, the time it takes to introduce a new technological innovation. This alteration of time and knowledge forces us to ask: What is our continuing link to slavery? Is it simply understood as the grandparent of segregation —that is, slavery gave birth to emancipation, emancipation gave way to segregation, with segregation finally producing desegregation? Perhaps more pointedly, is slavery no more than a museum piece, represented in static form through scholarship, at historical sites and in museums?

Most important, how do we make sense of slavery's lingering presence in our contemporary lives?  Is Ball correct that slavery haunts this post-industrial age, because like any apparition out of time, it won't willingly leave until it knows its time and place have come and gone? Or does it linger because we don't want it gone, not really? We conjure it back into existence through our veneration of the Civil War, in our cultural productions and reproductions, in family names and histories, in monuments, memorials, and reenactments, and in the ways we mark difference. Is this why slavery's ghost — and the specter of race and difference — never seem to leave us?

One means of answering these and other questions is through the scholarship of the humanities and the arts, since we cannot exorcise the past without confronting it fully. Take, for example, historian David Eltis's digital project, Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which documents the movement of millions of humans from the interior of the African continent to its western coasts, and then on to Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America. With a historian's eye for detail, aided by the computer's ability to store and sort vast amounts of information for almost immediate retrieval and analysis, Eltis helps us see the transatlantic slave trade for what it was: a global affair predicated on the exchange of humans, goods, and commodities for the enrichment of a complex network of actors over several centuries. Along the way African names, birthplaces, words, and kinship ties were pushed deeper and deeper into the creases of human memory. In their place, over the course of several centuries, ideologies surfaced to justify slavery, religion was invoked to maintain slavery, laws evolved to regulate slavery, practices matured to sustain slavery, opponents appeared who questioned slavery, individuals were born who fled slavery, and states did battle to perpetuate slavery. And in our own time, we, descendants of that earlier period, work hard to forget slavery, only to find ourselves stunned when the past refuses to stay gone….

The above is excerpted from an essay by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation president Earl Lewis in the foundation's 2014 annual report.


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