Is the Past Dead?

By: Ainsley Brown · December 3, 2008 · Filed Under Diversity in Law · Comments Off 

Part of the Middle Passage Law Series

‘It’s always about slavery. It happened sooooo long ago, why not just get over it’ or ‘I am over it?’

Get over it, you say, get over it. Why yes, I couldn’t agree more.

That’s correct, I said I agreed.

‘WHAT? What are you saying?’

Perhaps I didn’t make my self clear, so I will take this opportunity to make it perfectly clear: I agree that Black people should get over slavery.

‘WHAT THE HELL? How could you agree? What is the Middle Passage Law series about then?’

Well I did say that my response would shock some if not most of you.

Before I continue I think I should give you a moment to collect yourself from that shock…..breath it will be ok – I hope.

If you are over the shock, well that’s good, if not well that’s even better. Please, irrespective of your shock or maybe because of it READ ON.

Right now you are probably still feeling a bit surprised, maybe a bit angry but defiantly confused or perhaps you may even be in full agreement with me. Whatever you maybe feeling or thinking just relax and please let me elaborate before you draw any definitive conclusions.

Yes I agree that slavery happened a long time ago. And yes I agree that Black people should get over it – well that is in part.

‘Ah Ha! Oh, But! In part – what does that mean?’

I am sorry that I had to add even more confusion to the matter but it is necessary for clarity as will soon become apparent.

Black people should get over slavery, in my opinion, for three main reasons:

1.      When its legacy is used in strategic, and in my view nefarious, ways as an excuse/justification to escape personal responsibility, namely by people for whom slavery’s legacy had no salience in their lives.

Do not get me wrong I am not trying to say that the ugly vestiges of slavery are not still with us today – for they are. And yes it does affect the Black Canadian community disproportional more than others. Indeed, it will be recalled in the Middle Passage Law piece, ‘What’s in a name?,’ the continuing legacy of slavery is the everything of the Middle Passage Law series.

Also, please don’t get me wrong I am not trying to say that whenever a member of the Black Canadian community brings up the issue of slavery and its continuing legacy as an explanation for the current state of their community it is being used as an excuse/justification for the negative (real or perceived) elements  of their community.

Nor am I trying to say that the continuing legacy of slavery is simply a generalist sociological theorem used to both frame and explain the intersection of the socio-economics, law, politics and race in Canadian society.

‘Then what are you trying to say?’

What I am trying to say is that the continuing legacy of slavery, as important as it is, is only one factor that goes into shaping an individual, their opportunities, their choices, and their personal circumstances. An inherent part of being an individual is the ability and freedom to choose – no doubt shaped by our past.

The choices people face in life may at times may be extremely difficult, they feel like they ‘have no choice,’ are in a ‘lose lose’ situation or are ‘between a rock and a hard place,’ however, no matter how difficult the choice they non the less have the freedom to chose. This is the cold hard uniformed standard on which we are all judged.

Concomitant with this freedom of choice is being held personal responsibility for any resulting (positive/negative) consequences. This is a central tenant of the very foundations of our legal system – the rule of law.

This might be over stating it a bit but I feel I need to say it: if slavery and its continuing legacy were allowed to become a legitimate excuse/justification to escape personal responsibility then the Black community as a member of the Canadian family would be placed above the reach of the law.

For reasons of social harmony, equality and for that matter common sense no community has the right to such status.

2.      When it is used as an excuse/justification for lack of personal effort.

The continuing legacy of slavery is not a reason to give up and stop trying.

Yes, I agree and fully understand that it both pushes and pulls people to the margins of society (politically, economically and legally) often with tragic consequences.

And no people, I am not only referring to crime here. I am referring to something far more pervasive and even less obvious than crime but all too often leads to crime – a broken spirit.

The legacy of slavery should not be a yoke dragging people down to the lowest of depths, no; instead it ought to be an inspiration for people to aspire to scale the highest of heights – so let us all climb together.

3.      When the legacy of slavery is used as a weapon to stifle open and honest dialogue about issues that affect us all.

Because race is such a touchy issue I have generally found either that the legacy of slavery makes people fearful of engagement anxious of being labeled a racist. Or when it is finally discussed it is more often than not a blame game or lecture with people talking at each other rather than talking and listening to each other.

I have simply one question: if the legacy of slavery continues to haunt us today in very real and profound ways, how are we as Canadians going to tackle the negative aspects of this legacy if we are never able to sit down and talk about this issue in open and honest ways?

Please let us all put aside the negative rhetoric and unite in full, open and honest dialogue – the aim of the Middle Passage Law series.

Black Canadians should get over slavery, for the above three reasons or for any other reason where its legacy is used/perceived as a negative hold on the Black community, making it anything less than it actually is – a valuable and valued member  of the larger Canadian family.

What people who say: ‘It’s always about slavery. It happened sooooo long ago, why not just get over it’ or ‘I am over it?’ fail to understand is that this is simply impossible – yes Impossible.

Slavery is not just a historical event, long past with little or no relevance for today. No, no, nothing could be further from the truth – it has a continuing legacy.

‘What does that mean?’ The term the legacy of slavery, while in popular parlance, is rarely ever quantified. Well here are three examples that I hope will prove to be enlightening.

The first one is the long history and current presence of Blacks in Canada. It is due to slavery that we even have a Black community in Canada.

The second is, have you ever asked your self why this community, a community established well before many others, is one that is socially, economically, politically and legally marginalized? While I believe it is best to allow you to seek your own answers to this question, I non the less will plant a seed in a word: Perception. See: the Law is Cool piece Colour Conscious Justice: Towards a Colour Blind Justice System.

The third also comes in the form of a question – why is that Blacks, especially young Black males, are perceived to be more violent than others? This perception and the marginalization mentioned above operate as vicious cycle to push, pull and then trap many Black Canadians in poverty and or crime. For a bit of insight into this please see the recent Ontario Review on the Roots of Youth Violence.

What all this points to is that slavery was not just an economic system, with a division of labour based on free and slave. It was so much more. It was also a social, political and legal system designed to denigrate, dehumanize and deceive a race of people.

‘Don’t believe?’ and you don’t have to but before you draw any conclusions let me tell you a story:

Imagine a horse. Now imagine a Black slave. Hold those two images in your mind. Each a being: one an animal and the other human. Under the system of slavery both should be held in the same esteem with no bias or prejudice, viewed simply as units of production.

Each will naturally try its best to attain its natural state. For the horse this is to frolic and roam freely in wide wild open spaces; in a word to be free and do what horses do.

The slave, a human being, like the horse, will also seek out his or her natural state. If the legal and political philosophers are to be believed such a natural state is to be free. A natural lover of freedom, the slave, will take any feasible opportunity to throw off the yoke of oppression, abscond and scatter to the four winds.

Now let’s say that both the horse and slave, the lovers of freedom that they are, seek out their natural state of freedom, jumping a fence and escaping. Both are captured and retuned. As simple units of production, held in equal esteem both should receive equal treatment upon return.

Well, so you would think.

However, the horse would simply be returned to its enclosure, checked over for injuries, brushed down and fed – the master being empathetic to the horse seeking out it natural state.

The slave would also be returned to his or her enclosure – dead or alive. If alive at the time they would be whipped to within an inch of their life or worse killed to teach them and the other slaves a lesson: being black your natural state is not freedom but slavery.

Unfortunately this prejudices and the many others associated with the whole slavery system where not abolished when the British abolished slavery in their Empire in 1834.

This is why and the Nobel Prize winning novelist William Faulkner in Requiem for a Nun put it best: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The legacy of slavery is in our past, yes, but it reverberates in to our present and will likewise echo into our future. It will be up to us, “us” not just Black Canadians but all of us as Canadians, to work to make it a net positive rather than a net loss.

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