That is the final line of Eugene Robinson's powerful Washington Post column, THe American Story of Slavery.
I will offer blockquotes without hotlinks because you should read the entire column.
Robinson begins by noting
Hollywood has finally taken an unflinching look at slavery. It’s past time for the rest of the country to do the same.He goes on to write
We tell ourselves that we know all about slavery, that it’s ancient history. But we’ve never fully investigated its horrors, which means we’ve never come to terms with them, which means we’ve never been able to get beyond them. Where slavery is concerned, we are imprisoned by William Faulkner’s famous epigram: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”It is not just that slavery feeds into America's continuing problems with racism.
It is that one can argue that slavery itself is not dead in the United States. After all, the 13th Amendment banning slavery does contain the exception "except for punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted" which too many Americans forget, about which I will offer a few more thoughts.
But it is also important that our understanding of our history is incomplete, if you will, whitewashed.
There are three paragraphs that are for me key to understanding how incomplete that understanding is. The first two, again, without hotlinks, are these:
I called it the nation’s original sin because slave owners, including the Founding Fathers, knew very well that they were sinners. Owning slaves was a matter of economics — one could hardly be expected to run a plantation without them — and personal luxury.While some Americans might be aware of the contradictions of Jefferson, in part because of Sally Hemings, I doub many have ever considered the situations of Madison or of Henry.
James Madison called slavery “the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man” — but did not free the slaves he owned. Thomas Jefferson believed slavery should be ended in the future — but continued to own slaves throughout his lifetime. Patrick Henry, who said “Give me liberty or give me death,” believed that slavery was “evil” — but would not free the men and women he owned because of “the general inconvenience of living without them.”
I see several ways this connects with America today. First is the willingness of too many to look the other way at the demonizing of "others" sometimes even manipulating the fears some have based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion , in order to avoid "the general inconvenience" of limiting their own wealth and power.
Also connected with this is our continuation of involuntary servitude through the phenomenom of private places of incarceration, where those sentenced to such places are not given the guarantees of the Bill of Rights not merely because they have been convicted but because they are not being held by the government, but by private corporations who are by contract guaranteed a steady flow of inmates from they profit not merely from the pay they receive for holding them, but from the profits of the labor they are required to do. That some argue thatwe continue to have incredibly disparities by race in the rate of incarceration does not have anything to do with our history of slavery beggars the imagination.
We also need to understand that this never was, and is not today, merely a product of the Old Confederacy. Robinson writes:
Many people think of slavery as only a Southern phenomenon, but some of the biggest slave traders in the country were based in Rhode Island. Commerce in cotton picked by slaves was so important to New York’s growth as a financial center that the mayor, Fernando Wood, wanted the city to secede during the Civil War in order to continue doing business with the Confederacy.As one who lived through the Civil Rights era as an adolescent and later as a young adult, as horrible as were the images we saw on tv from the Southern states, it was just as horrifying to see the impacts of racism and segregation by culture and deliberate economic policy if not officially by law in the North - we saw it in ghettoes, we saw it in admission to colleges, we saw it in places like Pennsylvania with state institutions of higher education for African Americans, we saw it in the casual use of racial slurs.
We have not ever fully addressed the continuing legacy of slavery - and I would argue our continuing pattern of involuntary servitude and economic repression that perpetuate slavery and slavery-like conditions that deny some people hope and a future for themselves or their progeny.
You may choose to criticize the film. You can feel free to argue with Robinson's interpretation of history, or of what I have written in this post.
You cannot if intellectually honest deny the continuing racism that is so much a part of the American ethos, to our great moral shame.
Which is why I agree with Robinson that after all Slavery’s story is America’s story.
It is a story we have never fully told.
Perhaps it is time we start?