The other night I took in a lecture at The Lyceum in Alexandria, VA. It’s a historic landmark and the lecture was on the role Alexandrians played in the Underground Railroad. As I’ve mentioned before I’m very interested in studying American slavery, the Civil War and my family’s southern history so I was looking forward to learning something.
Unfortunately, I was distracted throughout the lecture. The first distraction was the presenter. I didn’t expect a speaker with the oration skills of Frederick Douglas but I didn’t expect a soft-spoken elderly woman reading from shaking notes either. She was informative and clearly very dedicated to the subject but her style was challenging to the attention span. The second distraction was the language. The presenter is a researcher from the “National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom” program and she said they call those who used the Underground Railroad “freedom seekers”. Really? I kept thinking about the term. It seemed to me that it makes the slaves sound like they were armed soldiers. It undermines the horror and indignity of their condition by framing it in positive language. The researcher also kept using the term “master” to indicate a slaveholder. I thought that wasn’t used anymore because it seems to elevate the status of those who simply dealt in human flesh. The program is federally mandated and administered by the National Park Service. That probably explains both the elderly speaker and the language. Anyway, the website is: http://www.nps.gov/subjects/ugrr/index.htm .
I left the Lyceum with the discouraging thought that even when we try as a nation to take in the complexities of slavery and it’s effects on race relations, we can’t bear up under the weight. The next day I was reading a piece on the Pro-Slavery Constitution by Paul Finkelman. In it he says,
The problems created by slavery-the moral and political legacies of slavery-were further complicated by the fact that the national constitution protected slavery in a myriad of ways… We should not be shocked or surprised that the Constitution protected slavery. Slavery, after all, was a powerful economic institution…. But, slavery in the United States was more than simply an economic system designed to extract labor, at a relatively low cost, from those who were enslaved… Slavery was also a system of racial control.”
Even during the time of slavery the tendency was to try to frame it in the cleanest of terms (simply economic) without the ominous undertones (racism). And that’s why we can’t hold it. We want to think of ourselves as a nation of freedom seekers and not a nation of enslavers. I recommend the article. In plain, unflinching terms Finkelman speaks some realities we have yet to face on the national level. The “National Underground Railroad Network To Freedom” program attempts, in its own way, to hold a national conversation about slavery. We really need to have that conversation so it is a baby step in the right direction.
To read Paul Finkelman’s article search http://racism.org. “How the Pro-Slavery Constitution Shaped American Race Relations”