How do we resolve humanity’s perennial sin?
Ed Sykes (right), 77, visits the National Memorial For Peace And Justice on April 26, 2018, in Montgomery, Ala. Sykes, who has family in Mississippi, was distraught when he discovered his last name in the memorial, three months after finding it on separate memorial in Clay County, Mississippi. “This is the second time I’ve seen the name Sykes as a hanging victim. What can I say?” Photo by Bob Miller | Getty Images
It’s said that slavery was “America’s original sin.”
It is true that enslaved men, women and children from southwestern Africa were traded for food in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Not long after, they were put to work in tobacco fields the colonists had recently planted. (Tobacco would become the basis for much of the region’s ultimate riches. It’s not hard to turn a profit if you don’t pay your workers.)
Setting aside for the moment the overt religious connotation of “sin,” the real sin came far sooner than 1619, not in the form of slavery but in the world view that it takes to enslave people — the view that some human beings are simply less human than the rest of us.
That presumption of supremacy certainly dates back to our collective human origins. In other words, white Europeans didn’t invent it, though it’s probably fair to say that an ugly lot among them perfected it.
As such, we should call slavery a perennial sin of humanity — the sin that led to a colonialist view of white supremacy over this hemisphere’s indigenous populations, who were also enslaved at various points in time, and ultimately to a deep stain, made even deeper by the enslavement of Blacks, on our legacy as the “land of the free.”
At the risk of oversimplifying what happened, white people invaded the hemisphere, stole the Americas from the Indians, made Black people work for free, and got rich in the process.
Ultimately, in order for supremacy to work, others — or “the other,” as academics like to say — must be condemned to a state of inferiority and cultural invisibility.
As the author Ralph Ellison, a descendent of slaves, wrote in his 1952 novel, “Invisible Man”: “Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in a circus sideshow . . . When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.”
It’s been decades since I read Ellison’s seminal work, but I’ve been thinking a lot about his words lately. It was in “Invisible Man” that Ellison gave voice to the character of a man without a name less than 100 years after Lincoln freed the author’s ancestors and more than a decade before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which finally outlawed racial discrimination.
Discrimination, of course, kept right on happening, but at least there was a law on the books that was meant to (and has to varying degrees) protect people of color and others from being treated as less than equal.
Cultural invisibility, on the other hand, is harder to legislate against.
The supremacists among us, not all of them white, are ingenious at finding ways to treat other people as inferior.
In the Jim Crow era, that purported inferiority was used by whites to the justify the lynchings of Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, but overwhelmingly Blacks, whose escape from slavery, by some, was apparently regarded as a sin itself.
To “invisiblelize” people, or least ignore major portions of their cultural and historical identity, is to seek to erase them.
That’s what Hitler’s “Final Solution” was all about.
That’s what American lynchings were all about.
That’s what the mass murder of nine Black parishioners during a prayer service in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015 was all about.
That’s what the slaughter of 23 men, women and children, most of them Latinos, in an El Paso, Texas Wal-Mart in 2019 was all about.
That’s what the mass murder of six women of Asian descent in Atlanta in March was all about. (Two non-Asians were also killed in the shooting.)
That’s what the unchecked spread last year of COVID-19 on the Navajo reservation months after the coronavirus arrived on our shores was all about.
That’s what the disproportionate COVID-19 death rate among Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans is all about.
And that’s what the murders today of unarmed people of color, especially young Black men like George Floyd, is all about.
I could go on, but instead I’ll paraphrase Ellison: people deemed undeserving of their full humanity may be in plain view and yet still unseen, invisible, and, for some, easily erased.
And therein lies our perennial, unforgivable sin.
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