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It’s that time of year again. Yes, black history month. So here’s 28 reasons to hug a black person today:

Reason 1: They deserve a chance.
Reasons 2-28:
Slavery.

It’s a few years old, but still one of my favorite SNL skits about black history month. The Black Jeopardy skit with Tom Hanks as the white contestant is a close second. But the point is that black history month is largely about slavery and its legacy and that legacy is something that makes most white Americans uncomfortable.

In a Vox article, Margaret Biser tells stories from her time as a tour guide at a historic plantation site. She makes it clear that most of the guests who toured the historic site on her tours were respectful and interested in learning more about the site and its history. But she also includes a standard list of questions asked by a minority of American tourists that reveal how much black history month is needed: 
1. Owners took good care of their slaves out of compassion and kindness instead of economic interest. “Did the slaves APPRECIATE the care they got from their mistress?” (emphasis mine)
2. Field slavery was tough, but house slavery was a pretty easy gig. “WHY would those men and women try to escape?”
3. Slavery and poverty are interchangeable. “Well, you know my poor ancestors had it just about as bad as the slaves.”
4. Prejudice permeated everything about slavery. ‘Scientific ideas’ such as the concept that Africans were created for hard labor and their thicker skin didn’t feel pain.
5. “Loyalty” is applicable to slavery. “Were they loyal? They gave ‘em food. Gave ‘em a place to live.”
6. There’s such a thing as a “good slaveowner.”

Biser ends her article by whittling these questions down to a basic premise: slavery wasn’t THAT bad. What are the implications of thinking that slavery wasn’t that bad? Or, as I often hear from my students: slavery was bad, but everyone was doing it and no one thought it was bad because it was acceptable at the time. Both responses demonstrate an unwillingness to accept responsibility for the horrors of slavery and a discomfort with acknowledging the role of many of our ancestors in profiting from slavery. I find it troubling that people have morals, but typically find their economic interests outweighing every other instinct, including (or especially?) their morality. Why did slave owners bemoan the curse of slavery and yet benefit, support, and maintain the practice? What I find even more troubling is the silencing of the many voices of Americas that spoke out against slavery. Yes, there were always those who found slavery inhumane and publicly said so, long before the abolition movement in the antebellum era made the anti-slavery movement a national conversation. People opposed to slavery pointed out the violence of slavery and its incompatibility with the gospel. They pointed out the hypocrisy of freedom and equality as the banner of the new republic while so many Americans lived in chains. The real question is why were those voices ignored for so long? 

For some of us, talking about slavery is depressing, upsetting, and unpleasant.
I get that. But what do you think it was like to be a slave?
What is the legacy of slavery?
We have come a long way, to be sure. But we still have a long way to go. Acknowledging the significance of that journey through black history month is just one small step on the long journey of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

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