For some time now, I’ve harbored a suspicion that much of the black experience in America, indeed much of African-American behavior patterns, can be traced to a history of what amounts to child abuse, rooted in the core experience of slavery. That is, Africans were brought to this continent as slaves and their descendants continued to be abused, from childhood up, until abuse and the expectation of abuse became endemic. We have a pretty good idea of how abuse as a child expresses itself in self-hatred and abusive behavior as an adult. Because even with the end of slavery, the abuse continued. There is a wrenching account of it in Toni Morrison’s , a story of racism, rape, incest, and a little girl who wanted blue eyes.
You might notice, in the above, a whiff of white privilege, an assumption that what might be called the PTSD of slavery let European Americans off scot-free. I admit that whiff exists, but I don’t think the whiff negates the idea. It only begs that we acknowledge that the abuse that was slavery left none of us out. The legacy of abuse and the freedom to abuse has been handed down virtually intact over the centuries, and it will take centuries to heal, if healing is even possible.
I’ve read enough history to come, finally, to the conclusion that humanity as a whole suffers from endemic PTSD. Everywhere you look, from the Trojan War to the Cattle Raid of Cooley, from Genghis Khan to Napoleon, Hitler to the Khmer Rouge, Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe, and yes, LBJ’s Vietnam and Dubya’s Iraq. On and on the litany goes. We prey upon each other.
More than that. We sort ourselves into hierarchies and prey upon the lower levels, take advantage where we can, make hay while the sun shines. And almost everyone likes to feel that, no matter how low they have fallen, at least they haven’t fallen as low as somebody else. At least there is some benefit to a lowly position. There is always someone lowlier. Why else has India hung onto its caste system long after it was supposedly abolished? How else explain Wounded Knee? Jim Crow?
Our much-vaunted Declaration of Independence staunchly puts forth the notion that “all men are created equal.” During the next couple of centuries, continuing even today, that notion has drawn forth people from all nations, many of them escaping one yoke or another in pursuit of this vaunted equality. And yet, particularly in the first centuries of the American Occupation, this longing for equality did not erase the nearly equal longing to be somewhat higher in regard, in their own eyes if not in the eyes of others. And this continent came with two built-in opportunities for status.
The native population, relatively less advanced in European crafts and dress, and handily endowed with skin and hair that made them easily identifiable, offered an initial opportunity for the lowliest tinsmith to see himself as one of the company of angels. As the frontier moved west, and the native population moved with it, their place was taken by Africans, endowed with many of the same qualities as the natives with the additional advantage of being condemned to, even, as some claimed, specifically created for perpetual servitude.
So the very promise of “all men are created equal” was, from the first, negated by the very human need to be more equal than others. It took a few years beyond even the Declaration itself for the signers and their ilk to acknowledge that the lowly Irish tinsmith might well be included among “all men,” but it took even longer – is taking even longer – to receive the natives and the descendants of slaves into the fold.
Ta Nehisi Coates is currently my go-to writer on the African-American experience as it plays out in the 21st century. I recommend anything he writes, most recently . And I have to say, I believe that if by any miraculous series of unforeseen events he ever comes across this piece, his first reaction will likely be, “Whaaaat? Is this crazy old white lady talking about?” And I probably deserve that, for sticking my toe into these deep waters in the first place. I don’t really even know how to swim very well.
He – and others – may think that I sound like the folks who mutter “All lives matter,” as some kind of answer to “Black lives matter.” That I have subsumed the experience of black Americans – and even native Americans – under the general rubric of “We’re all assholes and always have been.” And that has a bit of truth in it.
However, I also think that there is a peculiarly American experience that comes from the promise of equality and the propensity of people to reach for a higher status of some kind. A great many of the immigrants to this country came from the lower echelons of their own society, and found a place in which, not only could they be treated as equals by others of their own kind, but realized very soon that they could also feel superior to others who were not. We came with a built-in caste system that still informs our culture ever as much as it does India.
We came to this country suffering, as all people do, from the PTSD of history, from wars and persecutions, from famines and pogroms, from the Highland Clearances to the Russian Revolution. And there was some sorting out to do when we got here. But we didn’t have to invent a class of untouchables, we didn’t really have to decide who was low man on the totem pole, the one who, whatever became of us, we would never be. They were already here.
It was this Coates piece in The Atlantic that inspired this very essay of mine, especially this quote from Jefferson Davis which seems to sum up nearly all of what I have to say here:
You too know, that among us, white men have an equality resulting from a presence of a lower caste, which cannot exist where white men fill the position here occupied by the servile race. The mechanic who comes among us, employing the less intellectual labor of the African, takes the position which only a master-workman occupies where all the mechanics are white, and therefore it is that our mechanics hold their position of absolute equality among us.