There's a bit in one of Patrice O'Neal's stand-up specials where he talks about how arrogant Americans (generally) are, how proud we are of that arrogance, and that this arrogance about our arrogance is why people from other countries hate us. To make his point, he jokes that people in other countries know who the American president is. But if you asked us to name presidents in other countries, we're basically "I don't know. Why are you asking me? Who gives a damn about Iceland's prime minister or grand marshall or chief burger or whatever the fuck its called over there?"
The joke works because it takes a bit of truth (America arrogance) and adds some hyperbole to it. And it would work just as well if O'Neal replaced "foreigners" with "Black Americans." One of the more peculiar byproducts of our country's schizophrenic relationship with race is that it has left us with this dynamic where Black Americans (generally) know much more about White Americans than White Americans know about us. We'd do much, much, much better on the White People Shit literacy test than they'd do on ours. Eight out of 10 Black people would recognize Channing Tatum walking down the street at night. Three out of 10 White people might recognize Idris Elba. But the other seven would call the cops. (I'm kidding. Well, kinda.)
And while there are practical reasons for this — namely, there are just so many more of them than us — you can't help but believe that a large part of this knowledge discrepancy is intentional. A sense of "your shit just aint important enough to bother learning about it."
The type of willful ignorance that leads to me having this conversation in 2016:
"So, you're a writer?"
"Who do you write for?"
"A few digital publications. And I have monthly column in EBONY."
"Is that, like, a local magazine."
"Is it new."
Nowhere is this void more apparent than when it comes to knowledge about slavery. Raise your hand if you're Black (or White) and reading this and you've had to correct an otherwise educated grown-ass White person's views about slavery. And keep that hand up so I can give you an high five. If you're reading this, you're (probably) not in prison. And if you're not in prison, you didn't throat chop or spleen shank that person that day, and I applaud your constraint.
Also, when it comes to slavery, this void is ironic. Because the Transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery are perhaps the most specifically American aspects of American history. We would not be who we are today — economically, culturally, spiritually, geographically, even topographically — without it. But the lack of knowledge of it — and the lack of understanding of its panoramic and pervasive brutality — has led some to believe that, you know, it probably wasn't all that bad. Yeah, the not being free thing probably sucked, but you got to be in the sun, you got to sing songs with your friends, and you had all the greens and ribs you can eat. Imagine the Old Country Buffet, but with just greens and ribs!!! What's not to love about that?
Over the years, I've heard quite a few justifications for why slavery might not have been all that bad for us. Some from people sitting next to me in college classrooms. And some from paid columnists at nationally relevant newspapers. Here are some of my favorites.
1. Some slave masters loved their slaves. How else can you explain all the biracial children?
Love is blind. Especially when the object of that love is your property, and you have legal justification to treat it the same way you'd treat a hammer or your favorite futon.
2. American slavery might have been bad, but it was worse other places.
This, ultimately, is like comparing the stench of horse shit to dog shit. It's just all shit, man.
3. Well, you (Black Americans) are better off here than you would have been in Africa today.
There's a bit too much in this statement to unpack. So I'm just going to do what I usually do when someone says this. Eat a waffle and watch the last 15 minutes of Collateral.
4. It happened like 700 years ago. You should be past that by now.
Ironically, this is often said by the same person who still hasn't gotten over David Caruso leaving NYPD Blue.
5. Not every slave was treated terribly. Some were allowed to sleep in the big house, right?
Yes, because a greater physical proximity to your captor, owner, and rapist is always a good thing.
6. Not all White people were slave owners.
I wonder what was history's first #notallwhitepeople. #Notallwhitepeople killed Jesus? #Notallwhitepeople hated Othello? #Notallwhitepeople lived in caves? #Notallwhitepeople bit the apple?
If anyone knows, please tell me.
7. It only happened in a few states in the South.
Of course, the Transatlantic slave trade affected practically the entire Northern Hemisphere. The only difference between Blacks in Alabama and Blacks in Brazil is that the guys steering their ships were drunk.
8. Why would owners mistreat their slaves? It was in their best interests to be happy and healthy.
In this justification, chattel slavery was basically just an early iteration of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign.
9. Come on. Are you saying every slave owner was evil? Because that can't be true. I'm sure some were good people.
Was every slave owner on some Joffrey Baratheon type of evil? Of course not. But is there really much difference between "being inherently evil" and "existing within and willingly benefitting from an inherently evil policy?"
10. Slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation
While that measure might have made slavery illegal, it's not as if A) they had cell phones and fax machines back then and B) slave owners just collectively said "Ah well. It was good while it lasted. Here's your walking papers and a mule, Big Al."
I mean, have you ever heard of Juneteenth? No? Of course not. My bad for even asking.