David Letterman took days to apologize for his crude mocking of the Palin family. America took a mere 150 years to apologize for the cruelty and savagery of slavery. No one ever suggested that Congress works quickly. Sadly,this long overdue apology will achieve nothing because it lacks the most important part of a healthy apology: a request for forgiveness.
Last week, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for slavery. The House passed a similar resolution last year, so a joint resolution on behalf of the federal government should issue forth in the coming days. For the first time, the federal government will issue those healing words: “I am sorry.”
An apology for nearly 250 years of slavery. An apology for the reign of Jim Crow. An apology for treating our brothers and sisters as less than they are: fully human. An apology for treating human beings as property. Legislatures in five states have already taken a similar step, so to the Congress, I say, “Better late than never.” Now that the Civil War has been fought, the Emancipation Proclamation declared, and the civil rights movement waged, it seems a little odd for the apology to arrive now. The cart is well down the road; and finally, the horse is attached. How much better for all of us if America had apologized first and then worked to correct the egregious moral sin of slavery? But, even arriving late, at least it has arrived.
Unfortunately, the Senate's apology leaves out the crucial component of a healthy apology. That component is not reparations. The missing component is far more important because it alone can bring the reconciliation we all yearn for and desire. The missing component? The transfer of power in the vulnerable words: “Please forgive me.”
Some, like Clarence Page, say that this apology is too little, too late, issued so long after the fact as to be rendered meaningless. Others, like Charles Ogletree and Eugene Kane, suggest that a healthy apology will include restitution and reparation payments to descendants of slaves in America. A third group shouts from the rooftops and proclaims all America's race problems a distant memory, as if the election of a black president and the issuance of an apology can erase the deep racial stain contained within blacks and whites of America.
All three voices fail to see the whole picture. All three fail to grasp the significance of an apology.