|Charles M. Blow is The New York Times's visual Op-Ed columnist.|
It appears that Cliven Bundy, the 68-year-old rancher and freeloader, doesn’t reject only the federal government; he rejects history.
Bundy decided this week to tell us all what he knows “about the Negro.”
Mr. Bundy was quoted by The New York Times as saying:
“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
In an attempt to clarify his comments, Bundy was on “The Peter Schiff Show,” and he made matters worse: “I’m wondering: Are they happier now under this government subsidy system than they were when they were slaves, when they was able to have their family structure together, and the chickens and a garden, and the people had something to do?”
The Mount Kilimanjaro-size amounts of ignorance and offense packed into those two statements boggles the mind.
Soon after Bundy’s views on slavery and “the Negro” came to light, the conservative supporters he had accrued began to scurry and others pounced.
But I refuse to let Bundy’s fantasies about slavery and projections about “Negroes” be given over to predictable political squabbling. The legacy of slavery must be liberated from political commentary.
Casual, careless and incorrect references to slavery, much like blithe references to Nazi Germany, do violence to the memory of those who endured it, or were lost to it, and to their descendants.
There is no modern-day comparison in this country to the horrors of slavery. None! Leave it alone. Remember, honor and respect. That’s all.
How could slaves have been “happier,” when more than 12 million were put in shackles, loaded like logs into the bowels of ships and sailed toward shores unknown, away from their world and into their hell?
How could they have been “happier” to be greased up and sold off, mother from child, with no one registering their anguish?
Sojourner Truth, in her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, delivered in 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, lamented: “I have borne 13 children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me!”
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History estimates that nearly two-thirds of slaves lived in nuclear households. However, those families could be broken up on a whim, and many slaves were bred like animals, were raped at will and could marry only if allowed.
How could they have been “happier” to meet the lash, to feel the flaying of flesh, to have it heal in dreadful scars only to be ripped open again until one had, as Sethe, the main character in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” put it, a tree on one’s back?
It was not only the lash but also the noose and being chased down and ripped apart by dogs, and all manner of terrors. When the human imagination sets itself on cruelty there are no limits to its designs.
Robert E. Lee wrote in 1856: “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, physically and socially. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their further instruction as a race, and will prepare them, I hope, for better things.”
Others used religion as a justification, quoting verses and patting themselves on the back for saving the souls of the so-called savage.
But as Frederick Douglass pointed out, “The slave auctioneer’s bell and the churchgoing bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heartbroken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.”
Religion didn’t elevate enslavers; trying to justify slavery reduced religion.
“Happier”? How, Mr. Bundy, could you even utter such absurdity?
The very soil of this country cries out for us to never forget what happened here, for the irreducible record of the horrors of slavery to never be reduced.
Romantic revisionism of this most ghastly enterprise cannot stand. It must be met, vigilantly and unequivocally, with the strongest rebuttal. Slaves dishonored in life must not have their memories disfigured by revisionist history.
America committed this great sin, its original sin, and there will be no absolution by alteration. America must live with the memory of what its forefathers — even its founding fathers — did. It must sit with this history, the unvarnished truth of it, until it has reconciled with it.