One of the many reasons I read and write historical fiction is because of the way the past shapes the present. Nowhere is that more evident than with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and modern day America.
Slavery has cast a very long shadow and its enduring impact is the subject of Joy de Gruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. The book is an eloquent, searing indictment of America’s “most serious illness." She says, "Racism has run like a poison through the blood of American society since Europeans first landed on these shores… American’s denial of their blatant racism and the attending atrocities committed throughout the nation’s history has become pathological. Such denial has allowed this illness to fester for almost 400 years. It is what keeps this country sick with this issue of race.”
But it’s not just white politicians who sometimes shy away from the subject. I first came across lawyer Bryan Stevenson when he was on Desert Island Discs and subsequently read his book Just Mercy. Described by Desmond Tutu as “America’s young Nelson Mandela” Bryan Stevenson has devoted his life to exposing racial bias in the US penal system. Earlier this year he secured the release of Anthony Ray Hinton, an innocent man who had spent 30 years on death row in Alabama. In a Guardian interview Stevenson said, “What if someone came into the room and introduced themselves by saying they were a Holocaust survivor? Just those two words would make me stand up and give that person an honored place at this table. I would be responsive to them and I would let them talk as much as they wanted about the injury and trauma and hardship they had known. And rightly so. When it comes to the history of slavery and the terror that followed it right up to the 1960s, we have never done that. We do the opposite. You know, even me. I grew up in a segregated community, I couldn’t go to the public school, beaches, certain parts of town. My grandmother was the daughter of slaves; she grew up in terror of lynchings, joined the great migration to the urban centres of the north to escape. But I never talked about that for the first 30 or more years of my life.”
It’s problematic comparing one atrocity with another and yet Stevenson’s Holocaust/slavery comparison is a pertinent one. Quite rightly we remember the Holocaust, but there are no days of mourning, no statues, no memorials, nothing to commemorate the millions of Africans that suffered and died as a result of slavery. We don’t even have a universally agreed word to describe this colossal human tragedy. 'Black Holocaust' is a term that has emerged recently, and Joy de Gruy also refers to the ‘Maafa’ – a Swahili word meaning disaster, calamity, catastrophe. But the fact that there’s no definitive word seems to me to be symptomatic of a lack of recognition and respect for the survivors of slavery and their descendants.
In one of Stevenson’s talks he invited his audience to imagine a situation in which present day Germany had a penal system that wrongly arrested, imprisoned and executed a huge number of Jews. The thought is abhorrent. And yet this is what is happening in America. Black people make up 12% of the general population, yet a vastly disproportionate 50% of prisoners are African American. Those figures reveal a huge racial bias in the justice system. Stevenson didn’t add, but might easily have done so - imagine a situation in which unarmed Jewish youths were regularly shot by the German police. Unthinkable. But in America unarmed black men are seven times more likely to die as a result of police gunfire than whites. Imagine a situation in which civic buildings in German towns still proudly flew the Nazi flag. Inconceivable. And yet in some American states, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the Confederate flag still flies.
In Just Mercy Stevenson says, “Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, even feared is a burden borne by people of color that can’t be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice.”
That conversation is long overdue. And yet how can it even begin? Joy de Gruy points out, “The fact that the delegation from the United States walked out of the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in August of 2001, a conference that declared American chattel slavery as a ‘crime against humanity’, only served to highlight America’s refusal to acknowledge this period in her own past.”
Collective acknowledgement of historic guilt on the part of white society in both Britain and America is, I believe, essential. It’s also essential to recognise that white people still benefit from a social system that upholds the privilege of one part of the human race at the expense of another.
To address this, we really need to talk about slavery. And yes, those conversations will be awkward and uncomfortable and upsetting.
But if we don’t, “there is going to be more police misconduct, there is going to be more incarceration, there are going to be more wrongful convictions.” (Bryan Stevenson)
We need to start by speaking and hearing the truth.
Only then can we start on the journey towards reconciliation.
(Note: I have largely talked about the US in this article because both the books referred to were written by Americans. However, I’m well aware that many of the same problems apply to Britain.)