A week ago Saturday, Virginia took a bold step to apologize for their role in slavery. Was this an unnecessary step? I don’t think so. This courageous act went beyond the traditional legislative function of state government. The expression of regret for the damage of slavery may very well begin a process of emotional and spiritual healing long overdue for both Virginia and the nation.
How can an apology do what government programs have been unable to do during the 142 years since the Civil War? Before I answer that question, it is important for us to think about the damage of slavery.
Although there were numerous problems created by slavery, the black family endured the greatest trauma from the 246 year experience. The current problems these families face would have been unimaginable to ancient African tribal leaders.
The family was at the center of African life in the seventeenth century. Africans committed to more than lip service or verbal platitudes about their connection with kin. Their allegiance was to an extended family concept that went far beyond the nuclear family. The tribe was a major source of identity. If tragedy hit an individual, there was an unbreakable lifeline that stretched to the family and tribe.
Two major traumas of slavery continue to affect black families today. First, the spirit of the black male was broken. In his native setting, he lived as a dominant leader in a patriarchal world. His authority was often unassailable. Once in America the responsibilities of family direction, provision, and protection were totally stripped from him. America was the antithesis of Nigeria, Ghana or the male slave’s land of origin. A male slave had no authority over anyone including himself. He was reduced to a piece of “intelligent” breeding stock that could be used at the will of his owner.
The other major trauma of slavery was that there was no protection for the children. Fatherless families under matriarchal leadership had no stability. The children were at risk both physically and emotionally. Black children had to grow up quickly and learn to fend for themselves in an abusive world.
In response to the damage of slavery, our national government has tried many different legislative approaches to make up for the injustices experienced by blacks. Black leaders themselves have also used a range of approaches to attempt to bring healing to America’s racial wounds. Unfortunately, neither the non- violence of King or the rage of urban riots have fully healed the American soul.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.