Many irrelevant comments greeted column on ‘Dixie’

Last modified 5/12/2008

It’s ironic that I’m debating people defending the honor of a black woman who, in her efforts to kowtow to people celebrating their Confederate ancestors, wound up dishonoring her own.

A couple of weeks ago, at-large City Councilwoman Glorious Johnson, fresh from posing on the cover of the Folio weekly wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the Confederate flag – led the Sons of Confederate Veterans in its unofficial anthem, I Wish I Was in Dixie.

Confederate sympathizers took me to task for, well, taking Johnson to task for embracing the stuff that is offensive to any black person who is as loyal to his own history as they are to theirs.

Though it lasted for about 250 years and was followed by 100 years of legalized discrimination, these sympathizers are bent on treating slavery as some quirk in U.S. history.

I received a deluge of irrelevant responses. Like those from people who claimed that since not all Confederates owned slaves, they couldn’t have been fighting to preserve it.

Troops don’t determine the terms of conflict. The regimes they fight for do that – and Confederate troops were fighting for a regime that had slavery in its constitution.

I know that Abraham Lincoln didn’t have any great love for black folks. I know that the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free all the slaves.

But Johnson wasn’t singing Dixie to praise Lincoln, who at least did what was necessary for slavery’s ultimate abolishment. She was singing it in praise of Confederates who died for a cause that, had it won, would have made slavery virtually impossible to end.

Then there were the racist responses.

Like those from people who, while praising Johnson, talked about how many blacks loved being slaves, and how white slavers spared them from a life of cannibalism and horror in Africa by bringing them to America.

But amid all the silliness and the recasting of history, I did find one disturbing thread: The numbers of well-meaning people who, for whatever reason, believe that the key to black and white unity rests with all black people marginalizing the pain of their past.

That’s scary. Scary because that kind of denial – the kind that has, at its root, the expectation that the only honorable black people are the ones who allow whites to define their existence – is one of the reasons that racial progress lags in this city.

It is the kind that I see in these attempts to minimize the role that slavery played in the Old South; attempts that shrug off the fact that for the vast majority of black people who lived during that time, slavery wasn’t some abstraction.

It was their life.

It was a life in which many of them saw their children and their spouses sold away. It was a life in which they could be whipped, beaten or mutilated at whim. It was a life in which they had no rights to their bodies, nor could lawfully be taught how to use their minds.

"With the exception of 10 or 15 minutes, which is given to them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon, they

[slaves] are not permitted to be a moment idle till it is too dark to see, and when the moon is full, they often labor till the middle of the night," recalled Solomon Northrup, a free black who was kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Northrup’s life story is excerpted in Before The Mayflower: A History of Black America, by renowned historian Lerone Bennett Jr.

"Finally, at a late hour, they reach the quarters, sleepy and overcome with the long day’s toil," he said. "… The same fear of punishment … possesses them again on lying down to get a snatch of rest. It is the fear of oversleeping in the morning.

"Such an offense would certainly be attended with not less than 20 lashes."

That was what life was like for the majority of blacks in Dixie.

© Copyright The Florida Times-Union

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