Many psychologists believe that the little voice inside all of us that guides our behavior and tells us right from wrong is set by the age of 7. If you believe you are a lucky person, or even a cursed one, that belief was imprinted on your psyche long ago. It is by age 7 that a young person in this country first learns he or she is African American — and what that means.
Our self-image, be it positive or negative, lives inside our subconscious, where it festers unnoticed and unmonitored for the majority of our time on this planet. Psychologists believe there is work we can do on the conscious brain to combat any unwanted negative voices, but it will take some doing, since our conscious mind is actively engaged only a small portion of the time. It’s only so often that you can repeat to yourself, “I am smart enough, I am pretty enough,” before the practice grows burdensome.
If, like me, you are African American, there is an added psychic burden you inherit from your enslaved ancestors. A study of Holocaust survivors suggests that trauma is passed down through generations and can impact descendants’ lives in undetectable, potentially harmful ways. If this is true, all African American descendants of the enslaved in this country carry a double burden: the lasting effects of the physical and emotional damage our enslaved ancestors suffered and the lasting stereotypes created to dehumanize, dominate and control them.
Justifying the evils of slavery required a coordinated and sustained assault on the humanity of this country’s enslaved population. The total character assassination and poisonous objectification needed to relegate an entire body of humanity to the status of breeding stock, commodities and criminals would not have been possible without the implicit and explicit support of the federal government.
By memorializing in the U.S. Constitution the perceived sub-humanity of enslaved Africans, the federal government gave its tacit stamp of approval to the physical, emotional and sexual abuse of the country’s African population. The subsequent dehumanization was so thorough that centuries later government leaders felt justified in excluding African American citizens from federal programs they helped to pay for, like the GI Bill, Social Security and home loan assistance.
The Black Lives Matter Movement has helped resuscitate the age-old debate about reparations. We need to stop fooling ourselves. Reparations will never happen, and even if they did, no amount of student loan forgiveness or even 40 acres and a mule can repair the long-lasting psychic damage of the painstakingly constructed dehumanization campaign launched against America’s enslaved Africans. There is no number this nation can conjure that would be just compensation to the descendants of the people who literally built this nation, whose bodies were the basis of its first collateralized debt instruments, who were its amusements and its playthings. What price can one possibly put on centuries of systematic and Federally sanctioned rape, kidnapping, wrongful imprisonment, assault, stolen labor and murder?
These matters might have been settled long ago had a truth and reconciliation commission been established after the Civil War, when the formally enslaved were still living and could air their grievances and face their oppressors. Denied their day in court and their physical bodies long perished, their spirits cry out for justice from unmarked graves.
In their absence, we must give voice to their grievances and press for acknowledgment of the wrongs committed against them. In these pages and elsewhere, arguments must be made for why a presidential apology for slavery is long overdue.
Some will say that any modern discussion of slavery is a waste of time given that it concerns actions committed centuries ago by people long dead. What critics fail to recognize is that the current debates about Critical Race Theory and the teaching of The 1619 Project are, in part, debates about the unremedied injuries done to this country’s enslaved African Americans.
The first step toward this nation’s racial healing is to acknowledge the injury and to issue a public apology, in the full light of day — for all to see. Not like the one issued to the Native Americans, hidden deep inside the pages of the 2010 Defense Appropriations Bill, or like the nonbinding, uncoordinated apologies to African Americans issued by the U.S. House in 2008 and the U.S. Senate in 2009. Any apology for slavery must be something more akin to that issued by President Ronald Reagan to the Japanese Americans who suffered U.S. internment during World War II.
Repairing so thorough a public injury requires a thorough public response. Nothing short of a presidential apology can even begin to restore the damage done to the memory and reputation of America’s enslaved Africans. The apology must be public and explicit and loud enough to silence the restless murmurs of my ancestors talking in their sleep.
K. Ward Cummings (email@example.com) is a former senior congressional staffer and the author of “The Capitol Hill Playbook” (2nd Edition), written under the pen name Nicholas Balthazar.