The consequences of forgetting


An engraving of slaves being sold in New Orleans in the rotunda of St Charles Hotel, circa 1839. PHOTO/Fotosearch/Getty

We live in a country built off slavery and anti-black racism. The struggle for reparations is about remembering that, and fighting for a better future for all working people.

During a recent trip to New Orleans, I was taken aback by the near absence of any meaningful marker that this city known for its festivals, food, and fun was once the home of the largest market of enslaved Africans. When the transatlantic slave trade was officially ended by the United States government in 1808, sales of the enslaved within the internal United States created a robust market based in New Orleans. According to historian Walter Johnson, for its duration, upwards of one hundred thousand men, women, and children were sold in the streets of New Orleans.

Though you would never know it today, the streets of the French Quarter and just beyond were lined with “slave pens” holding men, women, and children awaiting their eventual sale. These were not quiet events — these were bustling scenes charged with the anticipation of bidding and profit. The pens were filled with shouts and screams as the improvised relationships forged in the slave coffles that moved enslaved people from the mid-Atlantic to Louisiana and Mississippi were sundered. One-third of the human merchandise haggled over were children under the age of thirteen.

Today, at nearby Jackson Square in the French Quarter, you can enjoy hot yoga, a talkative Houdini artist who counsels how art can be the medium by which conservatives and liberals can reach other, or you can just buy arts and crafts. And when the weather begins to turn towards the swampy heat of the Louisiana summer, you can buy an ice-cold SpongeBob SquarePants popsicle to cool off. But what you won’t find is any mention that in the aftermath of a slave rebellion in 1811, the heads of three enslaved people were plunged upon the spikes of the gates of Jackson Park.

Just around the corner from the central square of the French Quarter is the St Louis Hotel, where slave auctions were once a regular occurrence. As I stood looking at the hotel from across the street, I overheard the tour guide say above a slight whisper, “Unfortunately, lots of slaves were sold here too.” Who wants to talk about slavery, anyway, in the town with the motto “laissez le bon temps rouler,”let the good times roll.

In this way, New Orleans speaks volumes about the ways that slavery is situated in our national memory. Though the United States is a country upon which slavery was absolutely foundational to its birth and its young life, there is no national monument, memorial, or official recognition of the institution. Enslaved people built the White House and the Capitol dome where the nation’s laws are created; they served as the labor that allowed many of the nation’s founders the leisure to discuss and formulate the direction of a new nation and yet, today, there is no national museum dedicated to educating successive generations of the multiple ways that the country — from its founding fathers to its founding documents — was deeply implicated in the institution of slavery.

The omission of slavery and the racism that it produced gives critical insight into the paucity of public consciousness and understanding about the ways the institution forever altered the history of African Americans.

What happens when the public is encouraged to forget that this was a country built and fortified on the enslaved labor of black people? This is the critical context within which we have to understand the ongoing discussion about whether African Americans are owed reparations.

The issue of reparations has become a political issue in the ongoing Democratic Party primary. Candidates have expressed varying degrees of openness towards the idea as they jockey for the prize of black votes in the presidential primary. What is meant by “support” or “exploration” of reparations is intentionally vague but the engagement with the issue opens up the political space for a larger discussion of its importance. Democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders has dismissed it as simply “writing out a check,” though he did later say that he would sign a bill to study the matter.

Sanders, who backs the most robust program of “racial justice” initiatives in comparison of all of his Democratic Party opponent, still emphasizes that he is most interested in supporting universal policies that can end the racial wealth gap between whites and African Americans, as well as the disparities in health care and beyond. In an interview on the topic of reparations he explained further, “What we have got to do is pay attention to distressed communities — black communities, Latino communities, and white communities all over this country … I think that right now our job is to address the crises facing the American people in our communities.”

Jacobin for more

Comments are closed.