"Race is what defines us" (Especially if you dig holy dirt...)

Can dirt be holy?

Is there such a thing as "sacred soil"?

If you're religious about physical things, I guess dirt as well as locations can be considered sacred. Certainly, a good argument can be made that important graveyards, or places where large numbers of people died -- such as Auschwitz or Gettysburg -- are worthy of a certain kind of reverence. Whether that makes the dirt itself holy is another question.

When I was on the Berkeley Police Review Commission, People's Park activists used to scream that the park was "sacred ground," and they meant it.

Here in Philadelphia, local activists (in an ongoing effort I have blogged about repeatedly) have pressured officials from the notoriously guilty Bush regime into creating a holy place out of the buried ruins of the first presidential mansion. Not because George Washington lived there, but because he kept his slaves there. It is believed that slavery needs to move from being an unfortunate reality at the time of the founding to being a central feature.

My own view of this is that the most important feature was the development of the idea of freedom itself, manifested in the break with England, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. That many of the founders were themselves flawed, that they did not live up to the principles they enshrined, well, that is certainly an important part of history, as well as a feature of man. One of the founding's contradictions is that the founders' ideas were incompatible with slavery, even though slavery -- and slaves -- accompanied many (not all) of the founders.

However, to say that the country was "founded on slavery" because there were slaveholding founders is at least as much a mistake as saying that the country was "founded on Christianity" or "founded on the Ten Commandments" because many of the founders were devoutly religious. George Washington used to have insubordinate soldiers flogged; does that mean the country was founded on flogging?

But logic be damned; according to the law of identity politics, it is very important that people have "their own narrative," so slavery has to become a central feature of the founding. The first thing Philadelphia tourists ought to see is the sacred soil where slaves once walked.

...black enslavement at the nation's birth and in its birthplace has taken its place as a painful, essential topic of discussion and commemoration. In 2010, a memorial to the President's House and its enslaved occupants is to open right outside the front door of the Liberty Bell Center.

This change is a monumental revision of America's founding mythology, historians argue - one that has not diminished the sanctity of sacred ground but magnified it.

"The whole concept of sacred ground and the creation of sacred space has been extended by what's happened," said Randall Miller, a professor of American history at St. Joseph's University, who has pressed Independence Park officials to address the issues raised by the site.

"We're not just looking for history. We're not just looking for information on free blacks or slavery. We're going deep into discovering ourselves as a nation."

In this case, going deep means peering into a sacred hole:
In the spring and summer of 2007, Philadelphia witnessed something unprecedented, as hundreds of thousands of people streamed across the city to look at a hole - an archaeological exploration of the house site at Sixth and Market Streets.

Washington's slaves lived there when he was president and Philadelphia was the nation's temporary capital in the 1790s. Though John Adams, his successor as president and occupant, opposed slavery and held no human property, the hole kept its redolence of the unspeakable, for some a wound exposing a painful past, for others a scooped-out vessel holding a culture's complex secret self.

Such carefully chosen words. The hole kept its redolence of the unspeakable. Never mind that no one really knows who used the hole; it could have been traversed by everyone who occupied the place. It has earned a permanent stench of slavery, and for that it is sacred.

What's in this hole? Foundations of a house which belonged to Robert Morris, and which was temporarily donated by him for the residential use of the first two presidents. Washington had slaves there, Adams did not. The house was eventually torn down. Hardly magical or mystical, unless you believe that the foundations of the house have deep and hidden meaning, and that the soil is "sacred":

The excavation, done under the auspices of the National Park Service and the city, ignited imaginations and intense conversations as more than 300,000 visitors watched archaeologists expose the symbolic foundations of black slavery and governing white power in the literal foundations of the first U.S. executive mansion.

"Here, the powerful," said one man, pointing to the uncovered granite footings of a great bow window designed by Washington and said to be the precursor of the oval rooms of the White House.

"Here, the powerless," he continued, pointing to kitchen foundations a few feet away, all that remained of the world where Hercules, Washington's chef, worked his culinary magic before escaping to freedom. Nearby the outlines of an underground passage linked the world of kitchen and the world of bow windows; those who passed between them did so invisibly.

From spring till August, when the foundations were temporarily re-covered to preserve them, visitors who crowded the viewing platform stood transfixed, looking down on America's intertwined, parallel history of slavery and freedom.

Sorry, but I think they're reading a bit much into the foundations of a house.

But the word "sacred" is used seven times, and the Inquirer is so caught up with the magical powers of the narrative that it is reported that when the archaeologists "exposed this sacred ground," they were "releasing its power." I kid you not:

When the excavation was completely open and the worlds of George and Martha Washington were revealed, so intimately interlaced with the worlds of Hercules and Oney Judge, Michael Coard ventured down, 15 feet below street level, to the area that had once been the kitchen.

He says he felt a power and a connection unlike any he had felt before in America.

"I'm down in the pit at Sixth and Market feeling the same physical, cultural and spiritual sensation standing there on that ground, where Hercules stood in the kitchen, that I felt when I touched the ground in Africa in 1996," Coard said.

Archaeology exposed this sacred ground, releasing its power. And while the President's House site has been the most dramatic example at Independence Park of archaeology's potency, it is not the only one. Perhaps more than any other single activity undertaken at the park, archaeology has triggered the greatest change and precipitated the greatest renewed interest in America's civic origins.

What amazed me was to read that in addition to the slaves, the house was actually occupied by Martha Washington and Abigail Adams! Something which park superintendent Cynthia MacLeod hopes might be worthy of historical notation.
"We are pleased now also to have the tangible connections to relate the stories of many individuals previously not as well represented, such as James Dexter, all the free and enslaved Africans at the President's House including Oney Judge and Hercules, and, I hope, Martha Washington and Abigail Adams who also occupied the President's House," she said.
Well, I'd hate to be in Ms. MacLeod's position, as her predecessors stand accused of resisting and balking in the face of something called the "power of the real." Yes, holes are powerful -- especially when they invoke racial narratives:
Nevertheless, more than once in recent years, the park and its partners resisted archaeological efforts, balking at the pursuit of what local historian Ed Lawler has called "the power of the real."

Yet each time an excavation has been performed, it has uncovered something extraordinary - significant forgotten or unknown characters, the complexities of 18th-century life and previously hidden connections to 21st-century America, new history, new facts, all leading to heightened public interest.

It is not an exaggeration to call archaeology a key driver of the transformation of Independence Park, carrying it from the received traditional history of Founding Fathers and 20th-century veneration of their unassailability, to the complexities of the 21st century, where greatness is not denied but made more human.

"What we are looking at [through archaeology] are people telling their own story," said St. Joseph's historian Miller. "They're not writing it down, but they're doing it their own way and we have to go down and discover it.

"It's not just sacred ground - it's the realness of it that's so powerful. It's not reproduced. The African American story is there staring us in the face. Race is what defines us. There it is."

That's the real lesson.

It's all about race.

Isn't it nice to know that modern America can finally agree on something?

This is all so nonsensical to me that it's hard to know what to say, and I'm barely resisting the temptation to violate Godwin's Law. (But I do feel obliged to observe that the notion that defining people by race has a poor historical track record.)

Of course, if you're one of those recalcitrant reactionaries who don't believe race should define us, there's a term for you. You're guilty of "color-blind racism."

In other words, if you don't think race should define us, you're a racist.

As to unbelievers in sacred ground, they're probably guilty of an emergent form of blasphemy.

posted by Eric on 06.30.08 at 10:10 AM


Prof Miller: "We're going deep into discovering ourselves as a nation."

Not true. This is not an attempt to discover, but an attempt to impose a particular view. "Discovering" means "seeing it my way." You don't have to violate Godwin's Law*, Eric. 1984 will serve your purpose just fine.

*The original law has a slightly different meaning than your use here.

Assistant Village Idiot   ·  June 30, 2008 1:39 PM

I realise I am treading into very controversial ground here, but is there a connection between the fragmentation of both the nuclear and extended family in the AA community and the growing intensity of identification on the basis of race alone? It would make an intuitive sense. People need to feel they come from somewhere and fit into the world somehow. Family usually provides that, though clan, profession, or religion are used as well. In the absence of a well-defined family, perhaps defining by race becomes more intense as a fall-back position.

Assistant Village Idiot   ·  June 30, 2008 2:11 PM

The founding of an independent USA was the beginning of the end for slavery.
The colonies in the old south were the home of slavery
in North America, this should not make them or the slaves unique as all peoples of the planet have in their ancestry both slavery and slave ownership.
We are all ,(all races), righteous and we are all guilty.
It depends on the time frame.
All ancient countries that were powerful, Egypt, Rome, Greece, Mesopotamia embraced slavery, medieval Europe had most of the population enslaved as peasant farmers.
This is the heritage of humanity, or mans inhumanity to man.
We all must learn to live with it.

Hugh   ·  June 30, 2008 3:01 PM

AVI, you may be right about the need to belong.

Hugh, of the 12 million Africans transported to the Americas, slightly more than three percent were brought to the British North American colonies. The vast majority were taken to Brazil or the Caribbean:


In this villainous scheme, though, the United States is seen as the greatest malefactor -- and is blamed not only for conduct occuring before this country existed, but for the colonial policies of other European countries.

If there's guilt in the present for the crimes of the past, then why won't the Europeans admit their greater share?

Eric Scheie   ·  June 30, 2008 3:15 PM

According to another estimate, the total overall number was more like 9.5 million, with 399,000 going to the British colonies/future United States:


On the demography of early American slavery . . .
Historian Philip Curtin estimates that the total slave trade from Africa to the Western Hemisphere amounted to 9,566,000 people, the largest forced migration in all history. The 4,700,000 taken to South America accounted for half of the entire trade. The 4,040,000 who went to the West Indies represented more than 40 percent. By comparison, the British colonies/United States received roughly 399,000. South America imported nearly 12 slaves and the West Indies imported more than 10 slaves for every slave who went to North America.
Eric Scheie   ·  June 30, 2008 3:24 PM

The USA is getting the heat because for of power and wealth.
There is little use in trying for reparations from people who are poor and/or feel no guilt.
Have you not noticed the USA is responsible for all the worlds real and perceived ills?

Hugh   ·  June 30, 2008 3:54 PM

I wonder how pissed the people, whom wish slavery was a cornerstone issue, would be if some group came out and said that we were all slaves before 1776.

John   ·  June 30, 2008 5:52 PM

I think there's more than identity politics here, as well. By claiming slavery as the single significant feature of America's founding, these critics are freed to discount any good that has come from this nation and claim it is all tainted, and that we are all (those of us not descended from slaves, that is) so deeply flawed that our judgment is suspect. An exception is always implied for the speaker, for by acknowledging his own Original Sin he has thus freed himself from it. When they say "We are..." they really mean "You are..."

Hence the various attempts to redefine patriotism to match whatever is the cause du jour. Most recently we hear that the Dems' odd dietary fetishes are "The New Patriotism." Another is the mindless refrain that "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism." And by now we've all grown tired of the endless claim that worshipping at the altar of the Blessed Saint Al of Gore is patriotism. Conveniently such definitions exclude one's political opponents, in fact delegitimize them, while recasting one's own position as not merely proper, but as the only proper one. So the need to actually engage your opponents in debate is eliminated, as you have already demonstrated that they are not just incorrect, but evil, mendacious, and stupid. Their views and arguments can be disregarded, their so-called "data" and "facts" ignored.

Steve Skubinna   ·  June 30, 2008 7:08 PM

The basic fact is that anyone who has been fortunate enough to have ancestry that caused them to be born in USA is probably one luckiest descendents of that ancestry.
It does not matter what the conditions that determined their arrival or the country of origin, our lives are envied by all our
cousins in the countries of our origin.
I being of Scandinavian descent, and having the privilege of spending much time in Scandinavia, can honestly say that we are truly lucky.

Hugh   ·  June 30, 2008 8:19 PM

Anyone else feel that Martin Luther King would be spinning in his grave if he could hear these folks spout, "The African American story is there staring us in the face. Race is what defines us. There it is"?

(Emphasis added.)

What happened to the colorblind society in which charachter counts far more than race or the color of our skin?

joated   ·  June 30, 2008 8:43 PM

It is good to avoid thinking of some areas as 'sacred'. This necessarily means that other places are 'profane'. Evil acts or good acts may be done in a place, but the place itself is neutral. This false dichotomy prevents clear thinking. Note how the persons described by Mr. Scheie lapse into 'magical thinking'.

There is nothing 'sacred' about there having been slaves in a particular location. For that matter, there is also nothing 'sacred' about schools or government property which would make carrying a weapon there inappropriate. There is also nothing sacred about wetlands, or ANWR.

I could list other examples, but this illustrates that leftists are not as free from superstition as many imagine themselves to be.

Second Opinion   ·  July 1, 2008 3:53 AM

"Note how the persons described by Mr. Scheie lapse into 'magical thinking'."

Good point, but I thing "idolatry" might be more apt, as these people seem to have elevated an ideology into a false religion.

pst314   ·  July 1, 2008 9:51 AM

Perhaps when encountering this attitude our best response would be to ask "what do you mean by sacred in this context?"

And don't let 'em change the subject. It is a vacuous idea and they need to see that.

Assistant Village Idiot   ·  July 1, 2008 10:01 AM

can be slavery and sacred "walk hand in hand"..?

torasham   ·  July 5, 2008 8:16 AM

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