22 June, 2020

Listening to Experiences Not Our Own

Those who know history are freed to repeat the good parts.

We all have our little parts to add in trying to understand the Black community's reaction to the killing of George Floyd. My little part might be to give a contrarian view of the history that brought us to his moment. I'm not qualified to speak to the experience of living as a Black person in America, but I can add a bit to what we learned in US History class. I look forward to hearing your part. We need each other if we're going to make things better.

We start far away and long ago, because slavery was not invented in America. Russians, as we know them today, are the descendants of Vikings who got rich selling Irish slaves to Muslims. Vikings raided England and Ireland, took captives, sold them in Iraq, and settled down in what we now call Russia to enjoy the money they made. Modern Russia is what it is today because Vikings got rich off slavery. Look throughout the modern Middle East and modern Russia both, and you'll find no hated class of Irish descendants of slaves. A massive nation was built on slavery, but there's no lasting hatred. What was different there, or in practically all historical slavery?

The Vikings were not capitalists.

No, really. That's what's different. Capitalism changed everything, but not always for the better.

In the age of the explorers, the Dutch were making tons of money trading with China, but every now and again a ship would sink causing some poor Dutch merchant to end up in the poor house. These merchants put their heads together and came up with a creative plan whereby a group of investors would pool their investments across many trading missions then share the profits and losses equally. Everybody got rich and nobody had to go to the poor house. It was a win, so they made it bigger. Thousands of investors would give lumps of money (capital investment) to a stock exchange where smart dealers would set up flotillas of missions to trade in the Far East. 

People got very rich this way. It worked so well that to this day no one has found a better way to turn large lumps of money into larger lumps of money. 

They say to err is human, but to really mess up you need a computer. Capitalism is like a computer for money. Capitalism has not escaped all the evils of the empires before it, and its mistakes were made at record speed. Europe became as wealthy as the Great Khan himself, and a whole community of the rich began looking for new ways to turn their newly embigified lumps of money into bigger lumps. 

They found sugar. 

Again, really. The rich Brits went nuts for sugar, of all things. There was not just a market for sugar, but a burning demand. Investors were earning back 8% on everything they could give. The well just would not run dry. At 8% over 20 years, an investor could quintuple his money. No one asked why or how sugar was winning so hugely; they just sunk more money into sugar. We know the "how and why" they didn't want to know. 

The how of sugar's amazing success was importing slaves at a daunting rate and replacing them frequently, since they tended to die after just a handful of years. It was better for the stockholders to replace these waylaid children of God than to care for them in any way, because those stockholders made money at both ends; selling people and working them to death were both profitable. T'was stockholders killed millions of Africans. 

The world had never seen so many millions of people treated so evilly, nor so many people grow so rich so quickly, nor so many people enjoy so many delectable baked goods with sweetened tea.

In the American colonies, it was different. In America the work was a little less deadly and the slaves tended to live longer. This created a different culture from that which the Carribean plantation holders had on the sugar islands. In America, the slaves tended to have children and grow families. That demanded a different mentality than was required to work people to death. Only two mentalities could possibly long endure. Had a mentality of respect triumphed, slave-owning whites could have loved their slaves as equals and raised them up to full stature. The mentality of proud greed prevailed in America, though, and it allowed masters to demean their slaves and treat them as intrinsically less than human. 

1 out of every 3 people alive in the American South in 1850 was a Black human being, and that created an intolerable reality. Humans tend to connect to each other in very human ways, but mass slavery was an utterly inhuman arrangement. The 2/3 of people in the South who were white could not look themselves in the face if they imagined they were abusing people equal to themselves before God. They relieved that mental tension, that guilt, by believing and teaching their children Black people were created by God to be ideally suited to slavery. They were intrisically undisciplined. They were naturally strong. They were insensible to pain. They were in need of the Christian gospel. They both needed and loved to be treated just as masters chose to treat them. 

It was not enough. That belief was enough to make the money flow from cotton, but there was still one more human tension to relieve. Many white people sexually preyed on the vulnerable Black people they immorally called their private property. Rape, abuse, forbidden love, and every other form of human bonding, oppression, and reproduction mushroomed. This was domestically unacceptable, so one more divine lie needed to be cooked up and swallowed by the whole of American culture, North and South together. Whites taught their children most Black people were dangerous, unclean, pestilent, filthy. They taught their maturing sons that to be sexually joined to a Black American was to degrade, to foul, one's self. Union between whites and Blacks became an imagined offense to God, purity, and Christian morals everywhere. 

The necessary lies of African subhumanity and uncleanness grew and spread in America unchecked for 250 years. In 1859 American culture, even much of abolitionist culture, held African American slaves to be fitted only for the lowest of living. After 1865 slavery was illegal, but culture still held African Americans to be fitted only to be hidden away and left to disappear. The laws changed, but the culture didn't budge. We know that, because in 1963 it was still legally mandated in America to treat Black people as subhuman and unclean. The new laws of 1865 did not erase 200 years of disdain and disgust from the heart of a young Christian man. No, he passed that cultural lie on undiluted to his children.

In 1964 finally it became illegal to treat Black people as subhuman and unclean, but a young Christian man in 1964 did not suddenly have 300 years of disdain wiped from his heart, any more than his great granddaddy did. We know that from the many, many laws we've needed to pass since that banner year of 1964 to close loopholes no loving person would find.

In 2020, the law of this land makes people of every race equal in almost every way, but 350 years of disdain continue to work their poison. The law is better and maybe almost good, but there's more to human love than law. The law is, at the very least, doing better than we are. It's now time to work on hearts.

The culture of our land is mixed. Almost every American heart displays toward Black Americans some of that respect to which they are entitled, but almost every American heart also carries some of that disdain which our history wires into us. We do not feel this disdain. We are insensitive to it. Disdain persists unfelt within us, even though we do not sense our insensivity. Neither did that young white man of 1859 sense his insensitivy. He prided himself on his large-heartedness toward his slaves. Neither did that young white man of 1963. He prided himself on his large-heartedness toward coloreds every bit as much as his forefathers. In 2020 we pride ourselves on our "color-blindness", and it is a step on the path toward decency, but it's a step taken without any mirror. We cannot see ourselves as we are seen by the Black Americans around us. 

Guess who can see us as we are seen by the Black Americans around us.

Whites are surrounded by 40 million people who have been hated, belittled, and disdained for 400 years, and who continue to try to carve out an equal opportunity among us. They see us clearly. They have proven themselves faithful by any standard we could hope to claim for ourselves, and yet many of us do not trust their complaints. We are blind to their pain, but they cannot help but see us. They must see us, because our failings are their history, their present, and (unless someone does something smart) their future.

My heritage is American, but when I look back a little further I see Scotland. I feel a little warm and fuzzy when I see St. Andrew's Cross on a blue field. Need I tell you how the Scots reacted to British rule? We've all seen Braveheart. That brutality is the standard against which I must evaluate the patience and longsuffering of African American people, because they've been treated far worse than my people were treated by the English. I am thankful for the kindness they've exhibited over the years, decades, and centuries. We have not earned their grace. I cannot look at the anger in American streets today without remembering the decades of cultural injustice I've witnessed with my own eyes. What's more, as a white man raised to insensitivity toward this injustice, I know I've only witnessed a fraction of what was there to be seen.

So, in light of my history lesson, what do I recommend to myself? What do I think I should do?

I should open my ears to the story only Black Americans can tell. I must quit telling people they're wrong to be angry without hearing them tell me the reasons they are angry. I must quit making my hearing contingent upon every protester being a saint. Most protesters are no greedier than I would be after walking 4 centuries in their shoes. I need to seek out the voices of the angry and give them a fair listen. I need to be shaken, and not to try to shout down faithful, angry brothers and sisters.

It's past time we quit making our Black American neighbors shout into a void. We need to hear them with all the heart we put into silencing them these 6 decades past. 

Let's hear the bad and work to find a good path forward. I suspect ... I cannot promise, but I suspect ... somewhere in our 400 years there've been some good parts. Someone, somewhere did something good and right. If we can silence our hate-memes against protesters and open our hearts to the whole story, I believe we could find something of which to repent, something worthy to be changed, and maybe even something worth doing again. Those who keep fighting anger with hate and mockery have forgotten history. It's never worked before and if they carry this day, we'll all be doomed to forever repeat the divisions of our history. 

Let's apply our history lessons, and do something beautiful instead.