Written by Carlton M. Waterhouse
Recent conversations about the proposed sculpture of a freedman originally planned to be placed near the City-County Building in Indianapolis reflect an unhealthy pattern of dealing with this critical aspect of our history that needs to be broken; a pattern that focuses on feelings of guilt, shame and apathy.
These naturally flow from the ignorance that most Americans have about enslaved Africans as people and about slavery as an institution. Although "the peculiar institution" represented a central aspect of America's political, economic and social identity, most Americans have a very limited knowledge of the people who were enslaved or the critical contributions they made to the development and progress of the nation. In effect, slavery has been relegated to the shadows of our shared memory. As a result, many of us have strong emotional responses of shame or guilt about the subject without much knowledge or the benefit of diverse perspectives.
Much of the discussion has been about how a "slave image" will make some people feel. The strong implication has been that images or monuments of freed or enslaved Africans are not inspirational but shameful. I understand where such views come from. I held them myself before I learned that enslaved Africans were people with lives, hopes and dreams, and not just victims of a brutal system.
But why should I or anyone be ashamed of the millions of enslaved Africans who made the United States of America possible? The women and men who endured the hardship of slavery provided America with gifts of prosperity, religion, music, dance, invention, hope, perseverance, courage and more. Should I be ashamed of American heroes who were enslaved, like Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman? Perhaps I should be ashamed of the workers whose skill in planting and harvesting cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco provided the indispensable fuel that propelled America's rise to greatness. Is there any reason to be ashamed of the enslaved and free Africans of the African Methodist Episcopal and Baptist churches of antebellum Indiana who worked together to gain freedom for themselves and others, educate their communities, and otherwise serve God and humanity? I think not.
Our discussion should focus on what such an image can assist us in learning about this defining aspect of Indiana and American history. One of the greatest tragedies of American history is the continued disregard for the contributions made by 20 generations of enslaved Africans whose lives and work were central to the nation's political and economic development.
The 4 million enslaved Africans in America in 1860 were valued at $3 billion or more. That accounts for nearly three times the value of the entire American manufacturing establishment and roughly seven times the net worth of all the banks of the time. That tremendous monetary value reflects the significance of the productivity that the enslaved made possible. Their lives, stories and contributions deserve our acknowledgement and attention. Apathy should not characterize our response to such a vital part of our history. As part of the Northwest Territories and later as a "free state," Indiana has a complex history regarding slavery that included being "anti-slavery" and "anti-black." At the same time, the state played an important role in both the Underground Railroad and the continued enslavement of more than a few persons within its borders.
This history should be kept in mind, but not to provoke guilt any more than shame. No person living today should feel guilty for the mistakes, nor the atrocities of his forbears. However, all of us living today across racial and ethnic lines share responsibility for honoring and recognizing the contributions and value of these forerunners who made our lives possible.
In short, we should not oppose an image, monument or memorial because it relates to slavery. I think community, artists and sponsors must work together to facilitate images and monuments that honor and acknowledge the enslaved women, men, boys and girls of our state and of our nation. Since men and women working together were an essential part of enslaved Africans enduring, escaping and overcoming slavery, enslaved and freed women, together with men, should be the subjects of recognition and attention.
Waterhouse is an associate professor of law and dean's fellow at the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis. He is nationally recognized for his work on environmental justice and is known internationally for his research and writing on reparations for historic injustices and state human rights violations.