I really, really hope all of you out there were able to catch the Saturday Night Live (SNL) skit/video for Black History Month that aired early this month. Titled “28 Reasons,” it’d be a great source for tomorrow, February 28th, the last day of Black History Month:
I about died laughing and of discomfort when I saw this. From the actors being the three black kids in the class to the white lady teacher who stupidly dances along (I am so sadly pegged as this stereotype) to the awkwardness of the white students when slavery is mentioned by the black students…Oh, it is a gem.
Let me circle back to white privilege here for a moment. My last year of teaching I was subjected to a very lame roundtable of diversity training with a kind yet ineffective guy from my alma mater, Teachers College, with my principal, assistant principals, former principal, and a few teaching colleagues. As I yawned my way through elementary ideas of multiculturalism and white privilege, my then-principal blurted out, “But I don’t benefit from white privilege, my family didn’t own slaves!” and I jerked to attention. Wow….Did she really just say that? I asked myself. Yep, she did. The person who was leading a school of 65% Black students said that out loud and with earnestness. I took note through scrawling question marks and exclamation points all over my worksheet and went back to my special place.
Yes, I judged.
But once upon the time I would have said the same thing, way back before I started studying issues of race. Even after my studies, I took solace in believing that I, personally, had no affiliation with slavery. Then, I found my biological dad, a country guy from working class White rural Virginia (read: redneck). In processing the disappointment that my biological father wasn’t rich, famous, strikingly handsome, and/or royalty, I also had the thought that those people–my biological people–could have potentially once owned other people. I felt sickened by the idea. The parents who raised me were both from turn of the century immigrant factory working and/or Northern families, but this Southern White family who had been around for a loooooooong time–uh oh. Suddenly my hands felt dirty.
Regardless as to if your people owned other people in this country of ours, the history of slavery still works to benefit some and marginalize others. It set up a racial hierarchy that works to my advantage every day. It set up an economic advantage that my families have benefited from for decades, if not centuries. I have often wondered about the ways in which slavery set up the economy of our present-day country, and I think I have found a good book that might have some answers:
The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist. It just came out and is only in hardcover, but it looks like it packs a logical punch with history combined with stories from slaves themselves. The book blurb reads:
In The Half Has Never Been Told, historian Ed Baptist reveals the alarming extent to which slavery shaped our country politically, morally, and most of all economically. Until the Civil War, Baptist explains, our chief form of innovation was slavery. Through forced migration and torture, slave owners extracted continual increases in efficiency from their slaves, giving the country a virtual monopoly on the production of cotton, a key raw material of the Industrial Revolution.
As Baptist argues, this frenzy of speculation and economic expansion transformed the United States into a modern, capitalist nation. Based on thousands of slave narratives and plantation records, The Half Has Never Been Told offers not only a radical revision of the history of slavery, but a disturbing new understanding of the origins of American power that compels readers to reckon with the violence and subjugation at the root of American supremacy.
So if you need 28 reasons as to why and how slavery does affect your life today–whatever your background–maybe this is reading for you.
[And, for you high school folks, it’s non-fiction and therefore aligns with the Common Core Standards quite well–would be a great critical addition to a novel study.]