Why you should apologize -- ineffectively and dishonestly -- for what you didn't do

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall argues that because slavery's legacy affects us all (like it or not, it does), it shouldn't be taboo to discuss it, which she claims it is.

...for some, the subject is inexplicably taboo. Verboten. Don't ask, don't tell.

Get over it, they say. It's in the past. Talking about it won't move us forward. Plus, we had nothing to do with it.

Ignore it or not, we all are affected by its cloudy residue.

But the good news is that with race in the open and conversations not just one-sided, more whites are choosing not to turn away and are honestly sharing their own history.

I don't mind talking about slavery at all, whether it moves "us" "forward" or not. My father's ancestors were Norwegian immigrants who came to this country after slavery was abolished, so there's no possible genetic taint on that side. However, while my mom's paternal ancestor was a German immigrant, he married a descendant of a traitorous colonial official who had been deported and banished for being a Loyalist during the Revolution. According to genealogical research, it appears that the traitor/Loyalist may have owned slaves (and possibly had indentured servants; such "white slavery" was widespread at the time), but he fled from the United States and lost his property because of his opposition to the American Revolution. So, I may be descended from a slave-owning traitor. Other than that, I can't find ancestral guilt. Even though I have not conducted a thorough investigation of my mom's pedigree for slave-holding impurities, I think it's reasonable to suppose that because her ancestors lived in Pennsylvania, which abolished slavery early on, there probably weren't any slaves owned -- with the possible exception of the colonial Loyalist traitor. (Fortunately, the Founders saw fit to insert language in the Constitution which prohibits the inheritance of guilt, so I can't be charged with hereditary treason.)

Aside from the deported traitor, it appears that none of my ancestors owned slaves in the United States. Yet that might not completely extinguish their (and thus my) hereditary guilt, because they might have invested in companies and stocks which profited from the slave trade. There's no way of knowing that without doing detailed investigations into every ancestor's financial investments.

But even if I could do that (highly doubtful), is this a moral question or a financial question? If it is the latter, family guilt is erased, for whatever money there might have been was gone by the time my mom was born in the 1920s, and her parents were nearly broke.

I do think it is possible to call inherited money made from immoral activity to be ill-gotten gain. For example, if the son of an extortionist loan shark or Mob hit man inherited the millions his dad made by killing people and breaking their legs, a good argument can be made that it should not be his money.

But tainted money aside, does the father's career make the hit man's son immoral? I think it would be atrocious moral logic to say it would.

That has not stopped some people from feeling very guilty -- not merely about careers of their parents, but careers of very distant ancestors. The meme of guilt proposed by Annette John-Hall is called "family complicity":

Many, like Philadelphia first-time filmmaker Katrina Browne, 40, are doing some hard self-examination of their own family complicity in the business of chattel slavery.

In an effort to explore and reconcile her own ancestors' involvement in the slave trade, Browne made the illuminating documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North, which airs tonight at 10 on PBS.

To say Browne's family was "involved" in the slave trade is like saying Hitler was "involved" in the Holocaust. The DeWolf family - Browne's maternal descendants - was the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history.

The discovery left Browne mortified. For a while, she couldn't talk about it, even though in the back of her mind, she knew.

Browne, a graduate of Princeton and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif., had heard family stories of seafaring pirates and rapscallions. But it wasn't until she read the chilling account of the family's history written by her grandmother that her worst fears were confirmed: "The first DeWolfs that came to Bristol [Rhode Island] were slave traders," it read. "I haven't the stomach to describe the ensuing slave trade."

Worst of the worst
"In my mind, it was the worst thing you could do," Browne says. "Being a slave owner was horrible, but being a slave trader meant you were going to Africa and putting people in chains. . . . It ranked right up there with concentration camps."

I have to interrupt right there, because bad as slavery was (and is), it simply does not rank with Nazi concentration camps. The purpose of the Nazi Jew killing machine was just that: to murder every last Jew on the face of the earth. Horrible as slavery was, the goal was never extermination -- any more than the goal of puppy mill operators is extinction of dogs. Slavery was horrible, brutal exploitation, but exploitation is not extermination, so I don't think the concentration camp analogy holds.

But even if we assume it does, does anyone argue that the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of the SS killers are guilty of any moral offenses themselves? Again, I'm not talking about inheriting ill-gotten gain. If it could be shown that the grandson of some obergruppenfuhrer has a safe deposit box full of stolen Jewish diamonds or priceless paintings looted from Jews hanging on the walls of his home, I'm all for making him give it back to its rightful owners -- or at least calling it what it is. Even if the statute of limitations has run, it's still ill-gotten gain.

Perhaps, I thought, Katrina Browne is concerned not so much with her inherited guilt for the offenses themselves, but with the money she might have inherited from the slave trade:

A dubious legacy from which she reaps benefits, even today. And not just because Browne - the daughter of lawyer Stanhope Browne and civic historian Libby Browne - was raised privileged in a restored rowhouse in Society Hill.

"People are further along now as white Americans in ways that [they] take for granted," Browne says. "The government handouts that built up the white middle class - the GI bill, the redlining by banks that helped whites gain home ownership and denied blacks over and over again. . . . I hope this film helps people talk about this stuff."

I don't know what role her family played in the GI bill or redlining, but if this account of the DeWolfs is correct, it's doubtful that she inherited any ill-gotten gain from the slave trade:
Abigail Potter and Mark Antony DeWolf were married in Bristol, Rhode Island, in 1744. Over the next twenty-three years they gave birth to fifteen children. The DeWolf offspring grew to be the largest slave-running family in America. They worked what is known as the "Triangle Trade." Taking rum that was distilled in Bristol, they sailed to the western coast of Africa. There they traded their rum for people: men, women and children. The enslaved Africans were brought to Caribbean Islands where they worked, growing and harvesting sugar cane; turning it into molasses. The ships then brought the molasses back to Bristol where it was distilled into rum, and the cycle began once more.

I said the DeWolf's were the largest American slave-running family. During the height of the slave trade, the 1760s to the 1820s, eleven million women, men and children were taken from the shores of Africa. Nine point two million are recorded as at least having reached a destination. All but the 400,000 who were brought to the Continental United States were sold in the Caribbean. I do not know how many of these the DeWolf's were responsible for. They captained the ships, founded and owned the insurance company to protect their investment, secured needed political favors, owned and operated the plantations in Cuba; they worked the whole deal from beginning to end, very effective.

Some DeWolf's were lost at sea; another committed suicide on the African coast; others built and lived in luxurious mansions in Bristol. When the War of 1812 broke out, they had more and better-equipped ships than the U.S. Navy. Captain James DeWolf, a U.S. Senator who used his influence to continue slaving long after it was a criminal offense, was said to be the second wealthiest man in the nation when he died in 1837. (His wealth was completely gone within two generations). At times when they weren't running slaves, the DeWolf's were privateers; legalized pirates.

I am descended from this family. Several years ago Katrina arranged for about 40 of us distant cousins to gather in Bristol. We visited one of the spectacular mansions, now a museum. At the Historical Society, I read letters sent from brother to brother, father to son, Cuba to Bristol. I read letters reporting the capture of other ships, and of slaves bound and thrown overboard. I held steel manacles, used to chain a person's ankles; I held a rope whip. All of it, much, much too real.

(Emphasis added.)

If the slave wealth was gone in two generations, I'm not seeing any inherited guilt. I think these people are just feeling bad for what their ancestors did. The problem is, they have made it their mission in life to make a lot of other people feel bad whose ancestors had no remote connection to slavery. Eastern Europeans who fled from Hitler and Stalin, for example. They immigrated here, only to see their children being taught that they have inherited something called "white privilege."

Above all, these collectively guilty people need to apologize:

Nine years in the making, Traces of the Trade chronicles Browne and eight relatives as they retrace the Triangle Trade, from the DeWolfs' hometown in Rhode Island to the slave forts in Ghana and sugar plantations in Cuba.

Every step of the way affirmed the vast extent of the family business.

"The biggest surprise was the degree to which the town was involved," she says. "Like people buying shares in the slave ships like they were buying shares in the stock market. It was horrifying to think of my ancestors talking themselves into this kind of inhumanity, but to see this interconnected web of complicity, the kind of mundane complicity that we do today . . ."

In this year, the bicentennial of the federal abolishment of the slave trade, all Browne is asking is for people to think, talk and, perhaps, even acknowledge.

And then, once its people acknowledge their history, maybe the government will have the will to extend the long-elusive apology - as England already has done.

"White Americans see apologizing for slavery as something they didn't do," Browne says. "You don't have to say you're personally responsible. But you can acknowledge and show some human compassion."

I understand why people are emotional about slavery, especially if they read the chilling details of what their ancestors actually did. But -- notwithstanding the incessant demands of the guilt machine -- I see a major problem with any of them apologizing, for the simple reason that they can't apologize.

An apology is personal in nature. I cannot apologize for the actions of someone else -- not even my father or my mother. If they were to have hurt people, sure, I could acknowledge what they did and feel compassion for their victims, but I cannot apologize. This is further compounded when there are no living malfeasors, and no living victims. Suppose my great-great grandfather had murdered someone. I can't think of anything more absurd than hunting down the murder victim's descendants and telling them that I "apologize" for the crime of my great-great grandfather. Moreover, they'd be in no position to accept my meaningless apology. Any such apology by me would thus be an idle act, and a phony, disingenuous one, with a goal of alleviating nonexistent guilt.

Apologizing for what was not done by the apologist is thus an extreme form of dishonesty, because it is an admission of guilt that is not there, by people who did not do it, to people who are not their victims.

It makes about as much sense as demanding that "the Jews" apologize for killing Christ.

Such apologies are logically impossible and cannot erase guilt -- neither the original guilt attributable to the guilty parties, nor the phony guilt their descendants do not share. But because they don't work, a single apology would be one too many, while a million apologies would never be enough.

Once started, these apologies might become self-perpetuating, though.

Perhaps that's the whole idea.

UPDATE: My thanks to Watchers of Weasels for honoring this post as this week's Watcher's Council winning entry. Seriously, I'm honored.

(H/T The Glittering Eye.)

posted by Eric on 06.24.08 at 10:13 AM










Comments

I recently found out that my paternal grandmother's family, Irish, came over during the Potato Famine in the 1840s and some fought in the Civil War, I assume in the Irish Brigade. They certainly lived in NY, so they almost definitely fought for the Union.
My mother's family came from Italy in the 30s, my paternal grandfather's family came from Sicily in the late 1800's.

So in other words, part of my family fought against slavery, the Sicilian part were slaves to blacks at one point (Moorish invasion) and the rest were in northern Italy, so the only thing they've been a-pressing since Roman times is grapes.

So my apology would be "I'm sorry you're such a jerk and you can't get over it."

Veeshir   ·  June 24, 2008 10:43 AM

My earliest ancestor got here about the time of the Civil War and fought on the Northern side (I know this only because my oldest brother has the gun he carried into battle). But that's really beside the point.

The truth is, slavery is the normal condition of human civilization and it still exists today in more places than you might care to think. We are trained as Americans to feel guilt for our "peculiar institution", but the only thing peculiar about it is the lengths we were willing to go to to end it.

Are you descended from slave owners? Yes, you are. You are also descended from slaves. Everybody is.

tim maguire   ·  June 24, 2008 11:19 AM

A certain type of person is always horrified to find out that their ancestors behaved according to the existing mores. This type of person also has a great deal of trouble understanding the differences in those mores and the ones that govern society today.

Chris   ·  June 24, 2008 11:39 AM

No one ever seems to note that many of the slaves from Africa were sold to the slave traders by other Africans. Members of one group would capture members of another group and sell them to the traders. The traders wouldn't have had as much of a supply if Africans weren't selling other Africans to the traders.

kimsch   ·  June 24, 2008 12:56 PM

As Tim Maguire notes, my ancestors did some horrible things. And my ancestors had horrible things done to them. Heck, my parents did horrible things and so did I. And we all have had terrible things done to us.

This is so obvious in even the most superficial analysis of history recent and remote that it should hardly bear mentioning. When people overlook the obvious, it is because something emotional or otherwise non-logical is in play. The issue is not merely getting people to acknowledge that slavery occurred and was among the worst things. That can't be the issue, because that acknowledgement happened decades ago.

What is being asked is that white people, regardless of their connection to the American past, acknowledge that there is still some measurable loss or disadvantage resultant from slavery that persists to the present day. That some might acknowledge that is immaterial; all must be made to do so or the demands for apology will continue.

But this supposed loss is not merely subtle and elusive, it is invisible. Discussions of current discrimination (or even rudeness) of one group to another are worth evaluating. But discussing slavery as if it has effect on any person now living is not something that requires empathy, or historical study, or coming to grips with the past. It requires lying to yourself or others. It's not there. It doesn't exist. It is a comforting narrative that purports to explain painful things.

The doors of hell are locked from the inside, folks.

Assistant Village Idiot   ·  June 24, 2008 3:51 PM

Let's see. I have done a lot of genealogical research and in every line my ancestors came to this land prior to the war for independence. Most settled in Pennsylvania and Virginia with some also in Maryland. These people were from Scotland (some via Ireland), England, Wales, and Ireland. Most of my direct ancestors migrated south during the late 18th and early 19th century. Some eventually were slave holders and many uncles, cousins, and my gg grandfather fought with the Confederate States. Quite a few did not survive that conflict and many you can be certain fought in deadly conflict against cousins from Pennsylvania and Maryland.

In addition to those who were held in slavery being politically set free, all of my ancestors lost pretty much all material assets as a result of Sherman's March and other activities immediately following the end of the conflict.

Nothing in any of this notorious history causes me to feel personally responsible or guilty for any of it, although I certainly have no difficulty acknowledging the wrongness of slavery, and I also believe that most of my ancestors who may have been involved had beliefs that did not reveal to them this moral error. Some people moved forward quicker than others and as we well know this was frequently governed by economic circumstances.

Those who make all these claims for reparations and demands for apologies are just as misguided as my ancestors were and I do feel sorry for them that they waste their efforts in these ways.


Bob Thompson   ·  June 24, 2008 7:22 PM

One of the DeWolf descendants (James D'Wolf) is written about in the book "The Slave Ship," written by Marcus Rediker.

The focus of the book is the Middle Passage: a very good read.

Bagley   ·  June 24, 2008 7:57 PM

I think my standard response to this sort of thing is "I'm a Native American; when the hell are you getting off my continent?"

That usually stops them in their tracks.

Eric Blair   ·  June 24, 2008 8:55 PM

I thought the film was a pointless exercise in chinless white people feeling oh! so politely guilty, caught on tape. Please tell me my tax dollars weren't wasted on this.

But the scene around the dinner table where they all laid claim to both Princeton and Harvard degrees was pretty funny.

But don't let her make another film, 'kay?

Rachel C.   ·  June 24, 2008 11:54 PM

My question is this. When are the descendents of slaves going to start paying reparations to the families of those "whites" who were killed or maimed fighting for the freedom of their ancestors who were enslaved?

Kathryn   ·  June 25, 2008 10:26 AM

“Apologizing for what was not done by the apologist is thus an extreme form of dishonesty, because it is an admission of guilt that is not there, by people who did not do it, to people who are not their victims.”

You’re right, Eric, but it’s much worse than that. Katrina Browne is seeking: 1. To profit off of her family’s connection to slavery, while 2. Elevating herself above other whites who do not go through the public ritual of dishonest apologies; 3. To help blacks who have no right to them gain reparations (not to mention that the government has already illegally confiscated, and continues to confiscate reparations payments from whites and give them to blacks), while hurting the whites who will have to pay them; and 4. To position herself as part of the political elite of an increasingly non- and anti-white America, in which some whites seek to help non-whites enslave other whites. (Think South Africa and Zimbabwe.)

Browne and her ilk are the face of contemporary white racism, a racism directed by some whites against all other whites.

Nicholas Stix   ·  June 26, 2008 12:21 AM

My family's genealogy (on both sides) has been researched back to the 1600s in America. There's no indication that any of them owned slaves.

They were mostly poor farmers and the richest of them were preachers.

One ancestor (and several of his kin) fought for the Union even though they lived in Alabama. Winston County Alabama tried to secede from Alabama.

Another ancestor fought first for the Confederacy, spending time in a Union prison (Camp Douglas) and then when facing serving the confederacy again through a draft, he joined the Union Army. He was captured by the Confederates and died at Andersonville.

In total, I have a relatively equal number of ancestors fighting for both sides.

The Civil War destroyed whatever wealth and property anyone in my family had managed to gain. In no way did I benefit from an ancestor's ownership of or investment in slavery.

Thus, I do not feel any "white guilt". I'm not apologizing to anybody for what my ancestors did. Or didn't do.

Donna B.   ·  June 26, 2008 6:01 AM

If we cannot assume the burden of guilt from our ancestor's misdeeds, can we revel in their achievements? After all, we didn't do the glorious fighting; we didn't conceive the great political institutions; we didn't build the great cities.

While I do agree that we (whites) cannot and should not feel guilty about the past, remarks like Kathryn's seem extremely small of spirit.

Lovernios   ·  June 26, 2008 9:18 AM

Given that both sides of the family are southerners, it's probable that someone, somewhere owned a slave or two. Big deal, because, and here's a news flash, I never have and never will own a slave. I have nothing to apologize for and it will be a cold day in hell before I apologize for people to whom I owe only the slightest genetic debt.

Carol   ·  June 26, 2008 4:49 PM

I think it's reasonable to suppose that because her ancestors lived in Pennsylvania, which abolished slavery early on, there probably weren't any slaves

Eric, when did your mother's ancestor's arrive here? Many German immigrants arrived in Pennsylvania in the 1700s, when there was widespread slavery. The importation of slaves into Pennsylvania only peaked in the 1750s and 1760s, and slavery existed in the state, to one degree or another, until the 1820s.

A commenter also says, about her ancestors, "There's no indication that any of them owned slaves. They were mostly poor farmers and the richest of them were preachers. "

They may well have owned slaves, then. It was very common for small family farms, or ministers, to own a slave or two.

I agree that it's impossible to apologize for the offenses of others, including distant ancestors. I also know Katrina Browne quite well; she doesn't believe that we should feel guilty for the sins of our ancestors. And in her documentary, airing on PBS this week, she confirms what you say, that she didn't inherit any slave-trade money. She's also not profiting from any of this now, contrary to what one commenter says.

I tend to side with Lovernios, whose attitude I find much more constructive.

Another commenter writes, "many of the slaves from Africa were sold to the slave traders by other Africans." In fact, all of them were.

As for the comment to the effect that only current discrimination matters, and the inherited inequality passed down from slavery should be ignored, I couldn't disagree more.

Donna writes that, "In no way did I benefit from an ancestor's ownership of or investment in slavery." While that may be true in terms of any particular ancestor's direct connection to slavery, it's misleading. All Americans, white and black, benefit today from the opportunities and standard of living made possible by our nation's industrialization, in turn made possible in large part by slavery.

James   ·  June 28, 2008 2:50 PM

James, I've looked at the census records and they do not indicate any slaves owned by any of my ancestors that I've been able to document. Sorry to disapoint you.

As far as industrialization being fueled by slavery, Eli Whitney's cotton gin certainly did just that.

It was also his idea about interchangeable parts (in firearms) that led to the mass-production factory.

If the Civil War hadn't happened, industrialization would have "killed" off slavery eventually anyway.

Also, your last sentence, while probably true sounds like a justification of slavery and suggests all those slaves descendants ought to just be glad their ancestors got here, no matter if it was willingly or not.

I'm sure you meant it in the spirit of King's saying that no matter what boat we got here in, we're all in the same boat now.

Donna B.   ·  June 28, 2008 6:23 PM

Let's see. My great-great granddaddy came over from Ireland in the '40s, enlisted in the 20th Wisconsin Regt recruited by young Arthur MacArthur of Milwaukee [daddy of Doug] and was wounded/captured in the battle of Chickamauga.

He died in a Southern Hospitality Center named Andersonville. I've visited his grave which is surrounded by Union soldiers from, yes, Tennessee, Georgia, & Kentucky....

The cliche-ridden morons of the Philly Ink-wired variety should edit their fast-fading franchise before nobody at all reads their trash.

I've visited my ggdaddy's farm which actually has been restored & is part of the Milwaukee Cty Park System. Now should I get reimbursed from the former Confederacy for his having his earning years interrupted by torture & death [he died of blood poisoning & lack of medical care???

His widow never remarried & got by on a paltry pension. Yet somehow his son became a Milwaukee Cty employee, his grandson a Judge who was mentioned in the NYT, & we managed to scrimp & save & make a go of things.

Maybe bootstrapping as recommended by Booker T. Washington might be a better solution than Jesse J's $77 trillion indemnity.

And perhaps the fact that 70% of the country never had slavery [like my native state of WI] should be taken into account. Let the Southern states of SC & Louisiana & MS should bear the brunt of the $77 trillion con men like JJ & Sharpton are demanding?!?!

daveinboca   ·  June 29, 2008 2:21 PM

Oh yeah, plus the British Empire & the folks in Buckingham Palace who sponsored the slave trade should kick in a lot of cash to keep the lotteries & liquor stores rich in parts of the USA. Plus them psychotropic flora products coming north from America's backyard in full import mode!! That $77 trillion sure would make some areas of the economy burgeon----not all aboveground!

daveinboca   ·  June 29, 2008 2:29 PM

In every account of large-scale slavery involving Africans that I can find, the European slave traders parked their ships off the Atlantic coast, and black African slave traders delivered up the peoples of OTHER tribes to be enslaved. These black Africans went on raids to capture the enslaved.

In addition, considere the Great Slave Trade of the Muslims:
Black Africans were transported to the Islamic empire across the Sahara to Morocco and Tunisia from West Africa, from Chad to Libya, along the Nile from East Africa, and up the coast of East Africa to the Persian Gulf. This trade had been well entrenched for over 600 years before Europeans arrived, and had driven the rapid expansion of Islam across North Africa.
[snip]
The great trade networks across north Africa were as much to do with the safe transportation of slaves as other goods.

The above are from:
http://africanhistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa040201a.htm

So I want to know, where is the ancestral Black Guilt over slavery? Til I see it, you can be damned sure I won't be taking this seriously. At all.

And until the "vast trade networks" supporting slavery, and delivering black slaves to Islamic empires to their East are acknowledged, and acknowledged to exist for 600 years prior to the advent of any Western-Civ slave trade, I won't be taking these claims seriously.

And finally, if Slavery is such an unacceptable evil, why in the world is it still allowed to exist in African Islamic countries? Why aren't the blacks of this nation, and other nations, and in Africa, totally and completely up in arms about this? Until they are, I won't be taking any of this seriously.

Mike Devx   ·  July 1, 2008 8:18 AM

Mike writes, "So I want to know, where is the ancestral Black Guilt over slavery? Til I see it, you can be damned sure I won't be taking this seriously. At all."

Mike, what you're describing is the deep complicity of African societies in slavery and the slave trades.

So to find the descendants of the Africans responsible, and the societies which have inherited the benefits, you'd need to look in Africa.

I've been there, and by and large, both governments and ordinary people are quick to acknowledge that their ancestors participated in, and benefited greatly from, the slave trade.

So you're now free to take all of this seriously, including the fact that the current standard of living in the U.S. is based in significant part on the historical role of slavery.

You also write, "Why aren't the blacks of this nation, and other nations, and in Africa, totally and completely up in arms about this?"

They are, along with many others, Mike. Why aren't you?

James   ·  July 2, 2008 3:35 PM

Mike writes, "So I want to know, where is the ancestral Black Guilt over slavery? Til I see it, you can be damned sure I won't be taking this seriously. At all."

Mike, what you're describing is the deep complicity of African societies in slavery and the slave trades.

So to find the descendants of the Africans responsible, and the societies which have inherited the benefits, you'd need to look in Africa.

I've been there, and by and large, both governments and ordinary people are quick to acknowledge that their ancestors participated in, and benefited greatly from, the slave trade.

So you're now free to take all of this seriously, including the fact that the current standard of living in the U.S. is based in significant part on the historical role of slavery.

You also write, "Why aren't the blacks of this nation, and other nations, and in Africa, totally and completely up in arms about this?"

They are, along with many others, Mike. Aren't you?

James   ·  July 2, 2008 3:36 PM

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