My ancestor owned 41 slaves. What do I owe their descendants?
A few years ago, Cheryl Benedict, an education administrator and historian from Virginia and my first cousin, discovered on Ancestry.com that our great-great-great-grandfather, a Texas farmer named Augustus Foscue, had owned 41 slaves.
I was saddened, not surprised. Although I grew up in Brussels, the child of American musicians who did not inherit great wealth, my family is white and middle class, with branches rooted among the pre-revolutionary English immigrants who accepted slave-holding as a way of life.
My first thought was that I should research our family history more—and then write about it. My ancestors had done something wrong. It had not been known. Now it was. Shining a light on the truth, followed by some sort of atonement, seemed the right thing to do, especially at a time of rising and relegitimized white supremacy in the United States. Truth-telling as atonement.
It would also be an education. Growing up, I attended Belgium’s écoles communales. In school, I did not learn about U.S. history. For me, as a kid, America was more cultural and commercial than political or historical: baseball and Mark Twain, musicals and McDonald’s.
My mistake, typical of white Americans, was treating slavery as if it were a mystery buried in the past.
My attitude was naïve and ill-considered. As editors rejected draft after draft, it became clear that I was getting something important wrong.
My mistake, typical of white Americans, was treating slavery as if it were a mystery buried in the past. I had not known about my ancestor Augustus. My family had not talked about slavery. Now we did.
But confession is not atonement. And as one African-American historian or economist after another pointed out to me, slavery is not a mystery, and it is not past. What white Americans treat as a historical curiosity—something to investigate if we choose to—is to black Americans a cruel, unavoidable ghost that haunts this nation’s cities, schools, hospitals and prisons.
There is a small but growing group of descendants of slave-owners conducting private efforts at atonement.
This lack of understanding about slavery’s immanence is why white acts of private atonement are considered “conscience salves that do little to close the black-white gap,” William Darity, an economist at Duke University, told me. He calls symbolic actions “laissez-faire reparations” and argues that people who discover they have slave-owning ancestors are morally obliged to campaign for national reparations.
Because slavery was a societal institution, enshrined in the Constitution, and had societal consequences that have not been fixed, its reparation must be societal.
Still, with the internet revolution unveiling more family histories and efforts at a federal reparations movement stalled, there is a small but growing group of descendants of slave-owners conducting private efforts at atonement.
People I talked to are funding scholarships for black youths, putting up plaques in honor of people their families enslaved and engaging in dialogue aimed at promoting racial healing. They are writing books and making movies and documenting how the devastating inequalities set up by slavery were maintained during Reconstruction and the establishment of Jim Crow laws and the post-civil rights era. Universities, banks and other institutions are owning up to their past involvement with slavery.
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