Slavery, Malcolm X, and Black America

The more I read about Malcolm X, the more I like him (though I do disagree with a lot of his beliefs and opinions about racism). I’m especially a fan of this quote of his:

If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.

It’s a good quote. It’s true, too. And it creates such a great image for the problem of slavery.

Slavery is a problem in the US. I’m not talking about sex slavery, though that’s a huge problem, too. I’m talking about race-based slavery.

I know, slavery ended 150 years ago! How is it still a problem?

Anytime I’m in any place and the conversation goes to slavery, I become uncomfortable. I imagine this happens to other people too. And I don’t just get uncomfortable when people start talking about race-based slavery. Nope, any talk of any kind of slavery becomes awkward because I’m acutely aware of the fact that my very presence makes me a physical reminder of America’s past to everyone around me. In fact, my presence makes me a reminder to myself.

Usually it’s awkward. Sometimes I try to pretend like it’s not awkward. Other times I wonder how non-black people feel when they discuss slavery (again any kind of slavery) outside the presence of a black person. Is it this awkward? Is the tension as palpable? Or does everyone there just forget that we’ve all inherited this horrible stain that has yet to be fully erased?

I think one of the reasons that conversations about slavery are so awkward is that Malcolm X quote. I won’t get into talk about reparations, but let’s look at the history of black people in America right after the end of slavery.

First, there were no reparations. Even though people were free, many had no land, no way to accrue wealth, no job, and no education. A lot of slaves went back and “worked” for their former masters for, excuse the pun, slave wages. This happens, and during this time Jim Crow laws are starting to pop up in the South. Yay, new slavery! Lynchings happen constantly, integration is heavily contested, and black Americans still don’t really count as citizens. Now we’re in the middle of the 20th century. Dr. King and Malcolm X are the biggest Civil Rights activists (or at least, in retrospect) but many people are still fighting for black people to be treated like human beings.

Next, we get to vote in the mid-sixties. A few years later, blacks and whites can legally marry (isn’t that crazy/sad/ridiculous). And finally, in 2015, a white female Oscar winner (at an award ceremony that was soooooooooooooooo white (and male)) tells the LGBT community and POCs that they need to be more willing to fight for women’s rights. Only 50 years after the voting rights act! Less than 5 months after Grand Juries failed to indict!*

For whatever reason, America wants to shift the conversation away from 150 years ago without addressing everything that happened in between then and now. More than that, without addressing everything that didn’t happen but should have all those years ago. Unfortunately, the wound of slavery hasn’t yet been healed – I know because I carry it – but it hasn’t been dealt with either, so that the wounded ones feel shame at the pain. How is it ever OK for the people who’ve experienced an injustice to feel ashamed about having experienced it?

Maybe it’s just me.

Still, I think Malcolm’s quote still holds for today. I think America has yet to pull the knife out. Maybe she’s acknowledged the wound but acknowledgement isn’t enough. But I don’t think it’s too late. It can’t be. Because generations of black Americans should not have to walk around feeling uncomfortable or ashamed about their history in this country.


*I don’t think we shouldn’t fight for women’s rights (I am a woman) but I think the issue is a bit more nuanced and intricate than she lets on by simply urging persons of color (half of whom are women) and LGBT members (probably around a quarter of whom are women) to fight for women’s rights. As if the only women who exist are straight, white women.


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