News+Opinion » Barney Blakeney

The sins of the past won't soon be forgotten

Sad Lessons

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I've had some experiences over the past few days that have reminded me that although America has elected a black man president, there remains a lot to do before this nation becomes what it ought to be.

I just started reading A Lesson before Dying by Ernest Gaines. Set in the Deep South during the 1940s, the novel is about a black schoolteacher hired to help a condemned young black man gain a sense of integrity, humanity, and manhood before his execution.

I'm just a few chapters into it, but I'm already amazed at how well Gaines uses words to evoke emotions about racial discrimination. In A Lesson before Dying, the author describes how blacks at the time were forced to stay "in their place," how looking a white man in the eyes during conversation was not permitted, and how almost every aspect of a black person's life was dictated by the whites around him.

Gaines points out that blacks were made to follow these racist rules and discriminatory customs over the course of 300 years. As a result, Gaines shows how it's unreasonable to expect a school teacher to help an African American youth on death row to overcome all of that generational conditioning in the few weeks before his execution.

I found that thought profound. America has perpetuated a social system of discrimination since the 1600s. To think that system somehow has been erased over the past 40 or 50 years is irrational.

A movie I watched the other day entitled Goodbye Uncle Tom further strengthens that opinion. The film is a spoof about the South during slavery, and while the filmmakers gave the work some levity, their presentation of the structure of the slave system and culture it bred were historically accurate. Again, it was the kind of work that makes some black people angry.

The film showed that as the system of slavery evolved, both victims and perpetrators were changed. Often the slave would facilitate his own slavery as well as that of others. What began as rape for some black women often evolved into social security for themselves and their mulatto children.

The movie reminded me that many Americans, black and white, have embraced the racism and discrimination perpetuated throughout the generations because it offers certain advantages.

I was reminded of the stories the late union organizer Isaiah Bennett told me about working at the old cigar factory during the 1940s, stories about separate drinking fountains, bathrooms, and cafeterias for the races, and unfair and unequal wages for blacks.

As the dawn of a new era in American history rises with the election of a black man to the office of president of the United States, I'm reminded that the racism and discrimination perpetuated over hundreds of years has not been erased in the past 50 years. But I'm also encouraged that both the victims and perpetrators are evolving and adapting.

I know that there are many who see a better America and are trying hard to erase the inequities. I don't think I'll live to see that America, but I know it's coming.

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