American Slavery: History or Memory? My Jewish Perspective

Photo by Shauli Bar-On

As a proud Jew, I am committed to the principle of the presumption of innocence and defending the disenfranchised, the condemned and even the guilty. I find this consistent with Judaism’s teachings (Abraham bargains with G-d like a used-car salesman over sparing the innocent in Sodom, and Moses eventually begs G-d to spare the guilty Israelites after the sin of the golden calf) and my inner core senses that affording everyone the opportunity to defend themselves is the moral, ethical, and right thing to do. 

I watched Bryan Stevenson’s “True Justice” documentary on HBO when it premiered last week, and I read his book “Just Mercy” a year ago. Both works are phenomenal and serve as an essential education for those unfamiliar with the inner workings of the United States criminal (in)justice system. It takes a tremendous amount of ignorance not to see that the United States is far from affording all citizens with equal protection as the Constitution guarantees. As Stevenson explained in his documentary, this is partially because the United States has never formally acknowledged its wrongdoing in orchestrating the root cause of racial inequality: slavery. 

Judaism emphasizes the importance of differentiating between “history” and “memory.” History is learning what happened to other people, while memory is understanding one’s own experiences. Jews do not learn the Holocaust as mere history; we understand it as a memory. The United States treats slavery as history when it should be discussed as a memory. 

Suffering and atrocity cannot be measured, and they certainly aren’t a form of competition. Comparing magnitudes of suffering and levels of atrocity is not only insulting; it is ineffective and fails to accomplish anything productive. But comparing different reactions from entities responsible for the suffering is efficacious. Using the European response in preserving and remembering the Holocaust and contrasting it with the United States’ current attitude on memorializing slavery is revealing of the racial issues this country is currently facing.

Go to Germany and Poland, and you’ll find countless sites dedicated to the memories of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Not only are there museums, memorials and preserved concentration and death camps, but memorials of the country’s dark history are displayed in the middle of cities and near towns that used to house the souls of those who burned in an act of state-sponsored genocide. There are no Nazi flags waving in the German wind. There are no statues of Nazi leaders erected beside courthouses and city halls. There is no visible state-supported respect for an objectively evil regime. 

That’s not the case in the United States. Not only is it possible to count the number of memorials honoring the victims of African American slavery using one’s hands and feet, but the Confederate Flag still flies proudly throughout the land. It not only hangs in individual citizens’ homes — the First Amendment likely prohibits punishing a private individual for hanging any kind of flag in his private space — but on government property as well. It flies above property maintained by taxpayer money. The flag of the State of Mississippi and the city flag of Trenton, Georgia still bear the Confederate Flag. 

In Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, vehicle owners can request a state-issued license plate featuring the Sons of Confederate Veterans logo. There are 10 major U.S. military bases named in honor of Confederate military leaders. There are at least 107 public spaces with Confederate monuments in Alabama, six in Arizona, 57 in Arkansas, at least eight in California, at least 61 in Florida, 56 in Kentucky, 91 in Louisiana, 20 in Missouri, 131 in Mississippi, 140 in North Carolina and various others. Often these exhibits are displayed in courthouses, in places that are supposed to administer equal justice under the law. 

There have been attempts to remove these monuments through the court system. A 1998 North Carolina appellate court held the following on the issue of Confederate flags on license plates: “We are aware of the sensitivity of many of our citizens to the display of the Confederate flag. Whether the display of the Confederate flag on state-issued license plates represents sound public policy is not an issue presented to this Court in this case.”

So long as this country maintains it is “sound public policy” to continue praising Confederate leaders and rejecting the need to take responsibility for our country’s past, there will be little progress made in the arena of race relations and racial equality. 

Just as victimhood should not be the foundation stone of Jewish identity, it should not be the only underpinning intertwined with African American identity. But like the Holocaust for the Jews, it is a pivotal part of the people’s memory. Currently, the United States encourages the respect of historical figures who played an undeniably important role in preserving slavery and suppresses the memory of those who suffered. Unlike the way the state-perpetrators of the Holocaust treat their horrific actions, the United States promotes an agenda of defining slavery as history rather than memory. Reversing this policy and taking responsibility for our past is not a sign of weakness. It is a manifestation of strength and progress. 

About the Author
Shauli Bar-On is a third-year student at the University of Southern California, where he studying political science and is a veteran columnist for the university's daily newspaper. At USC, he is an award-winning mock trial competitor. A fierce defender of civil liberties, he frequently writes about political, legal, and social issues.
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