Understanding History

Scripps-Howard News Service 4.09.02
Balint Vazsonyi

At last, reparations for slavery have taken center-stage. It has been like waiting for the other shoe to drop, ever since the United States decided to compensate persons of Japanese ancestry for their treatment following Pearl Harbor. Once we accepted the proposition whereby the attitudes of the present, though no less transitory than those of the past, should nonetheless be applied to the past, we mortgaged the future.

We can no more relive the past than foretell the future. The appropriate expression of disagreement with the ways of the past is to change those ways in the present, for what we believe will be a better future. Attempts at "rectifying" the past are bound to fail because, owing to obvious limitations, they have to be selective. Unavoidably, what we see as old injustices will result in new injustices.

Americans are accustomed to the notion that slavery is abhorrent, vile, destructive, criminal. And so it is. Americans are also accustomed to the notion that, while the slaveholder benefitted unfairly, the slave got nothing in return for the labor and services rendered. There, the matter is not that simple.

The matter is not that simple because slavery occurred during times when a majority of free persons in the Western world had not much more than what many a slave received - a roof over their head, and food on which to survive.

Be that as it may, neither slavery's existence, nor its condemnation, is a matter of debate. At the same time, insisting that slavery in America was some unusual aberration of history - a unique wrong committed by white settlers from Europe against black captives from Africa - is simple demagoguery.

And then again, one of those words harbors an unexpected truth.

The word is "unique."

Slavery in America brought about some unique, albeit unintended, consequences.

Let us imagine a 60 year old college professor whose ancestors were slaves. It is morning. His alarm clock rings, his radio comes on. He gets out of bed, confirms the date, puffs up his pillows and comforter, goes to the kitchen, puts some fruit into the juicer, and turns on the coffee maker, along with his hearing aid and the television. After breakfast, he brushes his teeth again, takes a hot shower, dresses and drives himself to the airport. On the plane, after checking in with his wife on the cell phone, he puts on his glasses and takes out the book he had selected for the trip. Upon arrival, he checks into the conference center where he is to deliver a paper that evening. His topic: higher mathematics.

We might continue, but the reason for this exercise should be obvious by now. The sons and daughters of slaves in America have become the beneficiaries of literally thousands upon thousands of inventions, discoveries, products of the mind and of industry, as a result of being in America. And the reality is that their ancestors' chances of ending up here under different circumstances were next to nothing.

And, based on the record, the chances of their ancestors coming up with the inventions, discoveries, products were equally next to nothing.

The foregoing was not intended to excuse, justify or in any way approve of slavery. But a broader view of history will reveal that people don't get something for nothing. The inventors, discoverers, producers whose beneficiaries we all are, struggled, sweat blood, fought and toiled. And they came mainly from Europe. Most people in Africa were content with life as it happened to them, left the world much as they had found it.

And now to the point: History exacts a price, levies tribute on all who come to enjoy a higher level of existence. Slavery was the terrible price extracted of Africa's chosen people for bestowing upon their descendants long life, literacy, prolonged hearing and vision, a vast choice of occupational and leisure activity, communication and transportation, as well as the myriads of small and large ingredients that make up daily living in an advanced society.

While it is likely that many will be offended by this proposition, it is unlikely that any will come up with a realistic alternative to effect the leap from hunting zebra with a spear to the college professor's day as described above.

I call it a leap because the current wide-spread affluence in the white population is a very recent development that had taken millennia to reach.

When I first arrived in this land - the year was 1959 - I could not believe my ears upon learning that segregation was the law in Tallahassee, Florida, where I was going to school. My protestations, as soon as I could speak a little English, nearly cost me the loss of my small scholarship.

Today, I cannot believe my ears that the unparalleled opportunities and fabulous riches - available to all, and already possessed by many - are considered insufficient. Once again, knowledge of history would assist in comprehending that only more time will increase the proportion of success stories. Daily statistical comparisons, whether in material or scholastic achievements, are grossly unrealistic.

The English-speaking peoples have enjoyed far greater stability than their continental-European counterparts, because they have been able to live in peace with history. Unlike elsewhere, streets did not have to be renamed, statues replaced, holidays re-designated all the time. The reparation movement is an alarming sign of our growing inability and unwillingness to live with history as it happened. Too many voices incite us to reject our past; too many voices speak loudly about matters of which they are partly or wholly ignorant.

This is not to say that public condemnation of past wrongs is undesirable. We need to remind ourselves what never to do again. Our country was founded upon such reminders. But we must not fool ourselves by believing that we can somehow undo past wrongs. All we can strive for is to do better now.

And that, we are doing.