At a time of year when I naturally find myself deep into a historical biography, watching documentaries on television, or otherwise reflecting upon how lucky I am to have grown up in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, I found myself this weekend thinking a whole lot about how the nature of our freedom has evolved in the 236 years since our nation’s founding.
And, in the process, I managed to piss off a few thousand people, and sling the f-bomb at a largely beloved celebrity.
Should I have told comedian Chris Rock to go fuck himself? Probably not. A quick look around the pages of America’s Right and you’ll find that I’m not a big fan of dripping the f-bomb in materials meant for public consumption; if you want the f-bomb in political discourse, feel free to visit the great Ace of Spades HQ or any number of vitriolic lefty blogs. Generally, I feel as though the use of such language only serves to diminish what could otherwise be a substantive blog post or discussion.
Besides — I don’t know Chris Rock. I’m sure that he’s a decent guy, but even if he’s not, I’m not generally in the habit of telling strangers to go fuck themselves. However, on July 4, that exactly what I did.
In response to Chris Rock’s tweet …
Happy white peoples independence day the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed fireworks
— Chris Rock (@chrisrock) July 4, 2012
… I told him this …
— Jeff Schreiber (@AmericasRight) July 4, 2012
… and then, like poop through a goose, the entire Internet seemed to explode at once.
From the Los Angeles Times:
In his typical in-your-face-manner, Rock sent out a provocative missive on Twitter for Independence Day that’s stirring up a bit of chatter still on Friday.
“Happy white peoples independence day the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed fireworks,” he tweeted.
Frankly, it’s fairly tame on the Rock scale of controversy, but it has still managed to elicit heated response.
One from Jeff Schrieber read: “
@chrisrock Slavery existed for 2000yrs before America. We eradicated it in 100yrs. We now have a black POTUS.” He followed it with a hashtag of a dismissive direction involving the F bomb.
From The Huffington Post:
While some quickly came to Rock’s defense, including actors Don Cheadle and Zach Braff who seemed to see the humor in the joke, others took the gag as unpatriotic and fired back. Libertarian-conservative blogger Jeff Schreiber went so far as to attempt giving Rock a quick history lesson: “Slavery existed for 2000yrs before America. We eradicated it in 100yrs. We now have a black POTUS. #GoFuckYourself.” And blogger David Burge had a more humorous contradictory take: “Good one! I bet your Guatemalan house staff got a good chuckle.”
From the website for NBC’s Today Show:
Reactions came fast and furious, with some fans telling the actor/comedian they were now swearing off his films for what they considered an unpatriotic comment.
Wrote David Burge, “Good one! I bet your Guatemalan house staff got a good chuckle.”
And Jeff Schreiber, managing editor of libertarian-conservative blog America’s Right, tweeted “Slavery existed for 2000yrs before America. We eradicated it in 100yrs. We now have a black POTUS.
#Go (expletive) Yourself.” Schreiber later followed up with, “I’m not saying we’re blameless for that horrid practice, but for @chrisrock to indict the US as he did is inappropriate at best.”
Perhaps “indict” was not the best word to use; as one person aptly and appropriately pointed out to me, the United States was certainly guilty as charged. Instead, perhaps I should have replaced “indict” with “ignore progress.” Still, it is what it is, and similar recaps of what happened on Twitter on July 4 were featured at The Hollywood Reporter, Examiner.com, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (which ran a TV Guide piece), Digital Journal, and more. By the night of Saturday, July 7, “White People’s Day” was the No. 1 trending topic on Yahoo.
I’m glad for the attention, not so much on me or on Chris Rock, but rather on the issue itself. Why? Because the practice of slavery goes much deeper than either Chris Rock, myself, or anyone else could fit in 140 characters. Look at Egypt, for example — not only was slavery a part of everyday life thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, where slaves were bought, traded, sold and forced to provide labor for personal tasks as well as enormous projects such as the pyramids in Giza, but even as recently as a week ago we see that sex slavery is alive and well in an increasingly radical contemporary Egypt.
Chris Rock, of course, focused on the practice here in the United States of America. With so many people claiming that those who felt offended by Chris Rock’s comment were only offended because they somehow forgot about the history of slavery in America, perhaps a little context wouldn’t hurt.
THE NEW WORLD
Slavery was a horridly unfortunate side effect of the burgeoning mercantilist economy in the thirteen colonies, the mercantilism itself being a policy promulgated by Great Britain, where the monarchy felt it was necessary to bring the New World from a loose collection of colonies to a thriving, self-sufficient nation.
While I am indeed a mere divorce attorney and not an economist or political scientist, the basic underpinnings of mercantilism as used to solidify the economic health, stability, sustainability future viability of the colonies demanded that trade be controlled with precision, and that exports greatly outnumber imports. This required labor — to both sustain not only the agriculture necessary to eliminate the need for importing goods, but also to sustain the agriculture necessary to so exceed the needs of the colonies that the pecuniary gains of exportation could be reaped by the mother country.
Spain, which tended to capture and enslave indigenous populations when and where they established colonies, buttressed their enslavement by adopting fiercely protective policies insofar as trade was concerned. All trade with colonies went out of one or two ports in Spain, for example, and foreign ships were not permitted in colonial ports. But the British focused more on enslavement–of African slaves ripped from their home and families–than protective policies, and they were still dealing with the slave trade until a few years into the 1870s.
Across the world, according to the Encyclopedia of Human Rights, an estimated seventy-five percent (75%) of the global population were enslaved in one way or another. It was an unacceptable product of the time and global circumstance, mercantilism being a root cause of much of it.
It was also a practice with which the Founders of this nation struggled. In fact, writings and legislation alike show that the purportedly necessary evil of slavery was something that the Founders struggled with on a deeply personal level. They were in a position in which they were at the height of hypocrisy — in our founding documents, these men decreed that all men were created equal while simultaneously holding nearly one out of every four people as slaves — but knew that for the nation to succeed, it was a cultural morass and human tragedy that needed to be addressed and abolished.
George Washington, a slave-owner who waited until his own demise to free his personal slaves, said the following:
“I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery.”
“It will be found an unjust and unwise jealousy to deprive a man of his natural liberty upon the supposition he may abuse it.”
Slaveowner Thomas Jefferson, in July 1774′s A Summary View of the Rights of British America, both acknowledged the perceived necessity of slavery, made it sound as though the eradication of slavery was a goal he wished to see accomplished far sooner than it was, and originally appeared to be blaming British reticence for the perpetuation of the practice.
The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But previous to the infranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa. Yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, any by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by His Majesty negative.
In June 1776′s Draft of the Virginia Constitution, Jefferson again manifested an intention to put an end to the importation of slaves:
No person hereafter coming into this country shall be held within the same in slavery under any pretext whatsoever.
On June 17, 1777, Jefferson introduced legislation intended to prevent the importation of slaves:
To prevent more effectually the practice of holding persons in Slavery and importing them into this State Be it enacted by the General Assembly that all persons who shall be hereafter imported into this Commonwealth by Sea of by Land…shall from thenceforth become free and absolutely exempted from all Slavery or Bondage…That it shall and may be lawful for any person…to manumit and set at Liberty any Slave or Slaves to which they are entitled…”
The need to ensure the colonies’ economic viability, it seemed, trumped true freedom for all at the time. As Jefferson also said, “justice is on one side of the scale, and self-preservation is on the other.” It seems that the words and promises of politicians then had the same gravity and worth as words and promises of politicians now.
When it comes to the issue of slavery, after all, shouldn’t the natural inhumanity of the practice have demanded a little more than, “well, it’s the thought that counts?” Of course.
Did the fact that Britain and Spain felt that slavery was a necessary evil in the mercantilist system somehow justify the horror that was chattel slavery in the colonies and, later, the fledgling United States of America? Of course not.
Similarly, did the need to feasibly transition from an economic policy intended to establish a colony to an economic model designed to maintain a prosperous nature somehow outweigh the human tragedy of the practice? Of course not.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, roughly 645,000 Africans were imported as slaves to the British colonies and the United States of America. Despite the misgivings of our Founders, the practice was very much protected in our nation’s Constitution. Article 1, Section 9 expressly permitted the importation of slaves to continue for twenty (20) years, and ensured that enslaved blacks were figured into the population–at the worth of three-fifths of a person–for the purposes of Congressional apportionment so that those states which permitted the practice would be assured adequate power for the practice to continue.
According to the last United States Census prior to emancipation, the 1860 Census, the number of slaves living in our nation reached four million (4,000,000).
To a person, the practice was absolutely horrid. Slave traders forced the migration of hundreds of thousands of slaves, ripped children from the arms of their mothers, and sold them away like you or I might sell a used microwave on Craigslist. Anti-literacy laws enacted throughout the South made illegal the practice of educating slaves.
And, while the manner in which slaves were treated depended largely upon the nature of the slaveowners, much in the way that different people treat their cars, dogs, cellphones and clothing in different ways, utter brutality was generally the order of the day. Rape, murder, and inhumane beatings were more norm than anomaly. Black women who had been impregnated by white rapists were slaughtered. Men and women alike who tried to resist the treatment or escape bondage were executed.
Thankfully, by 1865, within 100 years of our nation’s Declaration of Independence — emancipation. While I pointed out to Chris Rock that the United States of America “eradicated” the practice within 100 years of declaring independence, that statement was meant simply to denote that the founders of an independent and sovereign United States of America set forth the infrastructure in which the practice could be abolished as the transition from mercantilism to a self-sustainable economic policy–in which slave labor was unnecessary–could be implemented.
As superficially hypocritical as the Founders’ statements may have seemed – in our founding documents, these men decreed that all men were created equal while simultaneously holding nearly one out of every four people as slaves — the nature and content of our founding documents show that our Founders unfortunately felt that the practice was necessary to establish a viable nation but also knew that for the nation to succeed in the long term, it was a cultural morass and human tragedy that needed to be addressed and abolished.
Argue as you may with the genuine nature of the Founders’ words, as I will provide no argument that their statements do not stand in contrast with their actions, there is no such argument with how this nation has made progress in the years since its establishment.
Immediately after the Revolutionary War, the northern states began to systematically abolish the practice of slavery. Congress abolished slavery in the Northwest Territory. Even in the southern states, lawmakers advanced legislation intended to halt the process for the importation of slaves. Some states, such as my home state of South Carolina and our neighbor directly to the south, used the twenty-year “grace period” memorialized in the Constitution to exponentially increase importation. In fact, this state was the last state to stop.
After importation ceased–formal importation, that is, as smuggling continued–the focus was shifting to keeping the slave population down. As noted before, anti-literacy laws were enacted in order to prevent the education of enslaved blacks. Strict laws addressing fugitive slaves were passed. In 1857, the United States Supreme Court in Dred Scott v. Sandford famously held, in a 7-2 decision, that enslaved blacks lacked citizenship as necessary to provide for standing in the Federal Courts, that imported slaves could not be citizens, and that an enslaved person did not gain freedom when transported into or through a free state.
After the Civil War and emancipation came Juneteenth. If Chris Rock insists that July 4, 1776 should be celebrated as “White People’s Independence Day,” then June 19, 1865 should perhaps be celebrated as “Black People’s Independence Day” as the recognition of the day that emancipation was actually enforced. Also worthy of celebration by all of us: December 6, 1965 — the day that the Thirteenth Amendment was finally ratified.
Progress was initially slowed by prejudices ingrained for generations upon generations. Jim Crow laws were enacted in the south, making segregation and division law of the land, and giving rise to those who felt that racially-motivated violence was somehow justifiable. Once again, the highest court in the nation disappointed, with the U.S. Supreme Court upholding segregation and turning a blind eye to struggles of black Americans in 1896′s Plessy v. Ferguson.
Slowly but surely, however, progress came. Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 overturned Plessy and declared unconstitutional state laws mandating separate schools for blacks and whites. Brown v. Board in 1954 led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964–deeming illegal any and all discrimination in employment–to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and to the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which barred housing discrimination. Each battle, each piece of legislation was extremely hardfought, with southern Democrats the toughest to turn and truly decent Americans of every color and every walk of life sticking their necks out in order to fight ingrained prejudices and advocate in favor of freedom and equality.
Following the Civil Rights Movement, that progress has been coming quicker and quicker. In 1971, the United States Supreme Court took more steps in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education to ensure the integration of public schools. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the American black community saw a myriad of firsts — first black U.N. Ambassador, first black American in space, first black Supreme Court Justice, first black American governor.
On January 20, 2009, as I pointed out to Chris Rock before telling him something that I shouldn’t have, the United States of America inaugurated its first black president of the United States. While Barack Obama is indeed of mixed race, he has held himself out as the first black president, and has certainly embraced the moniker. (No, Bill Clinton didn’t count.)
This nation went from fighting for the perpetuation of the practice to emancipating slaves altogether in 78 years. Within 100 years after chattel slavery was abolished, the Civil Rights movement was finally in full swing. 44 years after discriminatory voting practices were banned by the Civil Rights Act of 1965, Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States.
While it can never compare to the blood, sweat and absolute terror shed, lost and endured by enslaved blacks in this nation, the progress we have made here simply cannot be ignored.
Even now, across the globe, chattel slavery continues. It continues in the form of sex trafficking. It continues in the form of bonded labor, otherwise known as “pawnage” or “debt bondage,” a practice largely still in practice in India and throughout Southeast Asia in which a person is bound to a lender of one sort or another, having used his or her own freedom and labor as security on a loan. In those cases, said enslavement can be without limit or defined duration. In some cases, entire generations are enslaved.
We have come a very long way in these United States of America, and just as we should never, ever forget those most painful parts of our history, we should neither forget our most triumphant. And, as much as I take issue with the statist policies of President Barack Obama, his inauguration in January 2009 certainly stands as an absolute triumph. (Now, however, it’s time for the president to move on to the speaker’s circuit and, frankly, for him to go golfing on his own time. His policies are enslaving Americans in a different way, but that is fodder for another post at another time.)
We have indeed come a long way in these United States of America, and in examining our attitudes toward race in these 236 years, we should ignore neither progress nor pain.
WE SHOULD IGNORE NEITHER PROGRESS NOR PAIN
“Slavery is one of those monsters of darkness to whom the light of truth is death.”
– Frederick Douglass
I can certainly understand the frustration of those who perceived my tweet to Chris Rock as ignoring such an ugly portion of our nation’s history. Just as we must never forget the Holocaust lest we permit it to happen all over again, we must never forget the human tragedy of slavery. For slavery, whether it be the chattel slavery that existed during our first century as a sovereign nation or whether it be the pawnage that exists across the world, the light of truth is truly the key to abolishing and eradicating the practice not only here in the States, but in all corners of the Earth.
At the same time, I hope that all who felt the way they did about what I told Chris Rock likewise understand that there are Americans who believe wholeheartedly in the American model, that are sincerely ashamed of our past practices, and that want desperately to finally live in the post-racial world that folks like President Barack Obama promised, but are endlessly and hopelessly frustrated by the divisive words and actions of purportedly post-racial ambassadors like Chris Rock, President Obama, Al Sharpton, and the like. At some point, the inflamed rhetoric serves to hurt progress rather than foster same.
Don’t believe me? Consider the backlash we saw after the Trayvon Martin shooting when people like Al Sharpton, who make a living off of the inflamed rhetoric, ignored the facts surrounding the case and indicted shooter George Zimmerman–that “White Hispanic”–as a dangerous, trigger-happy bigot.
Just as racial divisiveness was fomented by NBC News’ choice to selectively edit 9-1-1 tapes to make Zimmerman appear as though he was racially motivated, Chris Rock’s selective, myopic focus on the pain of slavery while completely ignoring the progress afforded by the American model has the same chilling effect on racial harmony.
And therein lies my point: we should ignore neither progress nor pain.
Just as we cannot ignore the pain of our ugliest part of American history, we cannot ignore the tremendous progress made. To ignore the progress we have made would be to ignore one of the greatest fundamental strengths of our nation and its people: we learn from our mistakes. The United States of America is an imperfect nation founded by imperfect men who came here not so much knowing what they wanted their new nation to be, but rather knowing what they did not want it to become.
Ignoring the pain would serve to diminish the whippings, the rapes, the murders and the human tragedy that was chattel slavery. Ignoring the pain would further serve to deny us the opportunity to learn from our failures, make corrections, and prevail.
Similarly, ignoring the progress we have made would serve to diminish the sacrifices made by so many — those who marched in the streets during the Civil Rights Movement, those who stuck their necks out legislatively and did the unpopular thing because it was right, and those black Americans who fought and died on battlefields across the globe in the name of preserving freedoms that they could not yet enjoy. Furthermore, ignoring the progress would forsake those abroad who clamor for the same kind of changes we have made here at home — not only those mired, generation after generation, in debt bondage in Southeast Asia, but also those Islamic women in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, barred from learning, from driving, from having a voice of their own.
Obviously, just as I believe that Chris Rock’s “White People’s Day” tweet focused solely on the pain while completely ignoring progress, many who took his side believed that my responsive tweet focused solely on the progress while completely ignoring the pain. And, well, their tweets and e-mails show that they were frustrated to say the least.
— Jay Mouzone (@JayMouzone) July 7, 2012
— Cecil Furr(@Pnther_Fan) July 7, 2012
— Rojer Reyes (@dr_dyango) July 7, 2012
Hey Asshole, what you freaks call slavery was in reality 400 yrs of terrorism, theft, murder, rape, etc, etc. We made you devils 6000 years ago, and now we are about to put you down, like the rabid dogs you are. If everyone of you died we could reproduce you again, but the same is not true of you, so who is the creator, and who is the created? You all are a nation of beast and freaks. Just because you have a big loud mouth, and an following of fools who listen to your crap, it don’t make you intelligent. You and your ‘founding fathers’ are/were hypocrites, lairs, rapist, pedophiles, and loyal practitioners of every freakish act known, and unknown. You screwed around with the wrong people. Your days are limited, america will be a byword in less than 5 years. Obama will be re-elected, and you will get your ass kicked in Iran, then in Europe, and the coup-de-eta will be delivered by the Chinese and Indians. Then you will know the difference between slavery and terrorism; because you and all your nations of devils will experience it first hand.
— Dave Moore (@DaveMoore20) July 6, 2012
— erik younge (@YoungeErik) July 6, 2012
FROM: Joe Griffin
You my friend are a total cunt. I hope you die.
@americasright You’re like that molesting uncle at the family reunion, grinning and eating ribs like nothing happened.
— Honorée Jeffers (@BlkLibraryGirl) July 6, 2012
— JPritch (@pritch_j) July 6, 2012
— Andrew Stewart (@stew312856) July 6, 2012
— aControlledSubstance (@TomKolovosTKO) July 6, 2012
@americasrightAww you poor white folks love to poke fun at other races. Been doing it forever. Can’ handle it when the tables are turned.
— EarlHughes (@Ehughesiscool) July 6, 2012
— Tim Wise (@timjacobwise) July 5, 2012
— Dozie Ogbasaragi (@afrisoul) July 5, 2012
— Jenn Bunny Themelis (@bunifah) July 5, 2012
— Double-Axe Digital (@AkzGang) July 5, 2012
— Keith B. Holt(@KHoltJr) July 5, 2012
— Camille Safiya (@CamilleSafiya) July 4, 2012
Contrary to what many seemed to believe, under no circumstances did I somehow “forget” about the practice of chattel slavery. I don’t know that there is a red-blooded American alive who is unaware of the ugliest parts of our past. On the other hand, however, I know of many who believe that black Americans have little more opportunity now than they had at the outset of the Civil Rights Movement. I know of many who believe that their heritage, background and skin color somehow continues to be a disability of sorts through which they should be afforded an endless string of entitlements, handouts, and the like — entitlements and handouts that only require Americans of all colors, shapes and sizes to cede rights and freedoms to government on an everyday basis.
Is there still discrimination out there? You bet. In some circles, do black Americans have a much more difficult time? Absolutely. Does that reality somehow outweigh the tremendous progress we have seen? It shouldn’t. And when people like Chris Rock–who, whether we like it or not, wields that celebrity influence over particularly impressionable people–ignore that progress while fomenting discord by focusing solely on our grievous errors, unity is forsaken in favor of divisiveness.
No, it wasn’t appropriate to tell Chris Rock to “go fuck himself.” It diminished the legitimate argument that while it can never make up for the horrors of slavery in the United States of America, the progress that this nation has made–culminating so far in the inauguration of Barack Obama–cannot and should not be ignored. Even though few people sling the f-bomb better than Chris Rock, if given the chance I’d apologize to him for those three little words — and hopefully talk about how folks in his position can better serve the cause of black Americans and America as a whole.
July 4, 1776 was not merely “White People’s Independence Day.” That day was a day in which a foundation was laid for the model that we see today; imperfect, yes — but we are an imperfect nation founded by imperfect men, and we are a nation in which the capacity for opportunity is limitless, and directly proportional to one’s drive, desire and work ethic.
Chris Rock worked hard to get where he is today. Before him, though, an awful lot of Americans–black, white and everything in between, spanning more than two centuries–worked hard and defied the odds so that he would have that opportunity. I just wish that he would be more inclined to recognize our collective successes than spotlight our most egregious failures. Everybody knows the failures; it seems that some need to be reminded of how lucky we all are to be Americans.
Isn’t that what Independence Day should be all about?