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Lee: The memory of slavery

BY ASHLEY LEE | OCTOBER 25, 2013 5:00 AM

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The independent film 12 Years A Slave, the story of a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, premièred in select cities Oct. 18.

While I appreciate a movie that genuinely tackles the difficult issue of slavery, not everyone feels the same way. Some people view slavery strictly as a thing of the past — something that has and must remain buried beneath years of social progress. 

Americans have no problem remembering the lives lost at the hands of another country. We also have no problem honoring the Founding Fathers, who rebelled against the British government and declared their independence.  

But if someone wishes to go against the grain and point out the hypocrisy of our nation’s history and Founding Fathers when it comes to race relations, they will more than likely be considered unpatriotic and incapable of appreciating how far we’ve come. 

A person may draw attention to the terrorism, genocide, and slavery instituted by the American government, and the response more often than not is “get over it.”

It’s a shame some of us choose to remember 9/11 and the Holocaust, yet gloss over, dismiss, or trivialize American slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. These events have nothing to do with us in 2013, so why should we worry about it? 

Although we may not have been alive, we inherit the consequences of previous generations. I didn’t ask to be a descendant of slaves, my ancestry lost in economic transactions. My white peers didn’t ask to be white, nor did they ask for their privilege.

Regardless, we are who we are. We carry the realities, privileges, and stigmas associated with our race and it is up to us to do what we can with what we were given.

We can start by familiarizing ourselves with the details of slavery and genocide while understanding their importance in U.S. history. This is why movies such as 12 Years a Slave are so important. We need to recognize that the institution of slavery and its economic benefits helped America become one of the leading world superpowers.

American slavery and genocide are also critical to understanding why both African and Native Americans in particular experience very different realities than their counterparts. From voting disenfranchisement and extreme poverty to racial profiling and the lack of representation in public spheres, these two groups have been purposefully held back since this country’s inception to advance a racist agenda.

The last major Civil Rights Act was in 1968. This means it took from the end of the Civil War until the late 1960s for minority groups to legally gain rights whites already had. But laws are not always enforced. Racist attitudes and discriminatory behaviors by those in power are still intact.

Institutional racism established over 300 years cannot be fully erased in 45, especially when it has taken on new forms.

People say racism’s not that bad anymore, or even worse, that we are post-racial. I pity them because of their ignorance. They either choose to be blind or truly do not see the racial hierarchy that persists. Why is it so hard for privileged groups: whites, males, heterosexuals, and Christians, to admit they are treated better than minority groups at large?

People can talk all they want about the importance of individual responsibility and refusing to let race dictate success. Unless they see the way in which the ideology of white supremacy and racism looms even in the most basic structures of American society, people will continue to see slavery and genocide as a thing of the past.


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