Back in March, Jimi Izrael asked over at The Hardline: “Have any of you really benefited from the various apologies for slavery?” A Tennessee General Assembly bill that expressed “profound regret” for slavery inspired the question. He declared himself “adamantly opposed to slavery apologies that don’t come with some kind of recompence.”
I’m not holding my breath for an apology for slavery. The apologies offered by the Alabama, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina state legislatures have not made a difference in my life. When my great, great grandmother left slavery, she left everything behind but a coffee grinder. She wouldn’t even tell any stories about her life in slavery. She didn’t want to take anything from slavery and I don’t either. No apology can make right the experiences of the 283,019 enslaved people who lived in Tennessee on the eve of the Civil War. (Don’t bother trying to compare material conditions of slavery with industrial poverty. I won’t be moved.)
But something fascinating happened in Nashville this week. Legislators discussing Representative Brenda Gilmore’s bill nearly lost their minds. It’s true that none of the legislators who had their backs up earlier this week ever wore an iron shackle or purchased another human being. But Gilmore’s bill wasn’t just about slavery. In fact, slavery isn’t the problem at all. The bill expresses “profound regret for the enslavement and racial segregation of African Americans.”
When I watched a videotaped floor debate, I understood that segregation, and not slavery was the issue that hit a raw nerve. As far removed as we might be from slavery, many people lived segregation. Some white folks in that room rode in the front of a city bus while others rode in the back of the bus. Some members drank from “colored” water fountains while others drank from “white only” ones. Apparently, legislators didn’t get the memo about the harmonious state of life in post-racial America.
Slavery is part of the American past, but segregation is apparently very much part of the present that we haven’t dealt with yet. So if you’ll pass on an apology for slavery, will you accept an apology for segregation?
Jennifer Baszile is the author of "The Black Girl Next Door".