Al Sharpton is apparently subdued by news that his ancestors were owned by ancestors of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert described him as "quiet" and "reflective" -- states of mind that Herbert acknowledges are "unusual" for the reverend. That qualifies as the understatement of the decade.
Sharpton indicates that the news of his ancestry brought the "complete dehumanization" of slavery home to him, and Herbert takes the opportunity to preach that "Slavery, like the past . . . is not dead. It's not even past. It's not something you can wish away."
No, you can't wish it away, but it is possible to dwell on it overmuch, as I believe we do in this country. To judge by what my children are learning in school, you'd think American history was 75 percent slavery and 25 percent everything else (and that 25 percent includes a large dollop of imperialism, racism, sexism and homophobia, leaving little time for Lincoln, Edison, Clay, Holmes, Alcott, Dickinson, Addams, Longfellow or Fulton).
If Sharpton has not really understood slavery until now, then he has a peculiarly feeble imagination. Is it possible to live in 2007 America and not have thought about what life must have been like for black slaves? Is he kidding? This from a self-described "civil rights leader"?
When Herbert wrote "slavery is not dead," I thought he was going in a different direction. I thought he was going to address the continuing practice of slavery worldwide. He has done so in the past. In fact, if Al Sharpton were a serious man, which he is not, he would be agitating and teaching and focusing on the slavery that continues to torment mostly women and children around the world and even here in the United States.
The U.S. Department of State recently released a report on human trafficking. "As unimaginable as it seems," begins the report, "slavery and bondage still persist in the early 21st century. Millions of people around the world still suffer in silence in slave-like situations of forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation from which they cannot free themselves. Trafficking in persons is one of the greatest human rights challenges of our time."