We’ve all heard the old cliche that time heals all wounds. But does it, though? Really?
I think we need to debunk this bullshit idea that time is somehow magical, and that if we only let enough of it pass us by, we’ll forget the wrongs done, and the consequences of those wrongs — if left unaddressed — will also magically evaporate like a stagnant puddle on a hot day.
I’ve had a variation of the following conversation on more than a dozen occasions:
Me: Systemic racism exists and the consequences of it are far reaching and multifaceted.
White Person: I’m not racist. I voted for Obama. Twice.
Me: That comment is problematic in and of itself, but I’m talking about the way our institutions were built and how they work to hold some people back and give others advantages, all based on skin color. This isn’t really about individual racists.
WP: Slavery was a long time ago. Get over it.
Me: *gets over the conversation instead* Next.
There are white folks who honestly believe that just because slavery is no longer legal in the United States that racial equality has been achieved. For them, it’s as though the years 1865 to 1965 (and beyond to the present day, if we’re being absolutely honest) just didn’t exist, and we’ve all been living in a post-racial paradise. As evidence, they like to cite the presidency of Barack Obama. How could he be elected (TWICE!!) if racism was still a problem? As though the whitelash of Donald Trump’s election didn’t rise up and smack us back to the harsh reality of what this country is and how we all play into a system of oppression and advantage based on race.
Despite the oft mentioned cliche, time does not heal all wounds. Slavery isn’t like your dog dying, y’all. Time does heal that wound, because you learn to live without Skippy or Fido, or whatever your dear sweet furbaby’s name was. Time brings peace because it separates you from whatever tragic way you lost that pet, and it eventually gives you the space to think fondly of the times you spent with Skippy, Fido, etc. You never stop missing the pet, but you do stop disintegrating into a puddle of tears every time you think about her/him.
That personal tragedy is quite different from a system of oppression, based on the color of a person’s skin, in which one group of people owned another group of people for hundreds of years. And then, after the actual ownership ended, that group of people in charge of everything — who had been able to build power and wealth for hundreds of years on the backs of members of the other group, who toiled for free as inferior human livestock — created laws and crafted institutions that would serve as roadblocks to the newly ‘freed’ group of former slaves to keep them and their descendants from ever achieving power, wealth, or true freedom. This ruling group had the advantage of education, land ownership, existing wealth, and monopoly over every governmental office.
We only have to look to history to see how everything unfolded. Even the thoroughly whitewashed versions of the American story tell most of the tale through its obtuse avoidance of the abject brutality of what occurred.
If I get to set up a contest in the exact way that suits me best, and I also get to set the conditions in which you get to challenge me (or if you get to challenge me), it makes it extremely difficult for you to succeed, especially since I’ve kept you from practicing whatever skills you’ll need to use in order to win the contest. Now imagine me and people who look like me doing this for 400+ years using varying methods, all with an aim to purposely handicap you and block your success. And the minute you say, wow, this contest is set up for me to fail, I respond with, maybe you just need to work harder. Everyone had the same opportunities. Quit bitching and just learn to compete better.
Because, for centuries, people like me have made sure people like you are at a perpetual disadvantage. Telling you to get your shit together is worse than dismissive. It’s indicative of my refusal to understand history and how the last few centuries have helped me rise, on the backs of people like you. Maybe neither one of us were born into slavery, but because some of your ancestors were owned by people who looked like me, that leaves you a few hundred miles back in a race I’m currently ‘winning’ because I was born way ahead of you to begin with, based on the color of my skin, and perhaps on the combination of my gender, sexual preference, etc.
So, let’s talk about history, and why time isn’t really the answer to how we heal something as far reaching and insidious as systemic racism. Because this was no accident. This system was purposefully put in place by white folks to keep black folks under their bootheels. And it’s still working like gangbusters.
Let’s take a quick walk through the last few hundred years:
The first Africans arrive in colonial Virginia in chains in 1619. Welcome to what will one day become America! The land of the free, but not for y’all, of course!
In 1808, the slave trade officially ends, but black folks are still property of their white masters, and there are thousands upon thousands of them in chains.
In 1865, the Civil War ends, the 13th Amendment becomes a thing, and black folks are essentially free after more than 200 years of enslavement in North America. Hello Reconstruction! Oh, and also hello Black Codes! These are laws passed by southern states to restrict the rights of newly freed black slaves and to make sure they are still providing cheap or unpaid labor. Black Codes are mostly crushed by federal troops during Reconstruction, but, like a bad racist penny, they turn up again…
In 1877, Reconstruction ends (meaning federal troops hightail it out of the south, leaving black folks to fend for themselves in the not-too-happy-and-even-less-friendly south), and the Black Codes are back with a vengeance, this time wearing the visage of Jim Crow. Enter codified segregation, obstacles to black folks voting (oftentimes deadly), and laws that make certain activities illegal for blacks in order to put them back under lock and key or working on farms and chain gangs as free labor reminiscent of the antebellum south. Jim Crow laws stay in place for nearly a century, y’all. And defying these laws means beatings and death for black Americans.
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act passes, putting a legal end to the Jim Crow Era, meaning segregation on the basis of race is technically no longer allowed, but, of course, we all know that simply passing a law doesn’t change the culture. Because redlining exists. Targeting of black communities by law enforcement, both in the south and north, although southern law enforcement also has wide scale entwinement with the KKK. The rise of the Law and Order Era (thanks, Nixon!) that eventually leads to the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, which has resulted in more black folks being under lock and key than were ever slaves.
But let’s pretend that everything has been hunky dory since the Emancipation Proclamation, y’all. Let’s act like black folks and other POCs are on equal footing with white folks, who have been running shit since the 1600s when black people arrived in chains via an involuntary transatlantic cruise from hell.
Do you see? Can you understand that time can’t heal anything when there has been a centuries’ long plan in place to keep one race from achieving life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, all to benefit members of the ruling race?
Let’s stop pretending that time is magical, and that if enough of it passes, everything will come out okay in the end and we’ll be absolved of doing any of the hard work to dismantle widespread systems of oppression. Time belongs to whoever wields power. It’s a tool, same as the narrative we’ve gotten into the habit of calling our history, same as everything else that matters.
Before you tell a black person that slavery was a long time ago, educate yourself on the full dirty, terrifying, and ugly thing that is the history of this country. Slavery is one part of a story that is still being written today. And that inequality was hardwired into the plot by authors we pretend had everyone’s best interests at heart. That inequality takes a hit and rises again, stronger than ever. From slavery, to black codes, to Jim Crow, to the prison industrial complex.
It. Just. Keeps. Coming.
And its greatest trick lies in our collective refusal to admit that it exists. We play nice and pretend that some of us aren’t being purposely crushed in a wheel of oppression that has been turning since the 1600s.
I get it. This is some heavy shit. There are times I hang my head and want to lie flat on the ground from the weight of the knowledge that everything about this country was constructed so folks who are my color and gender would not succeed. America was not built for me, though it was built by people who looked like me. I was never meant to enjoy the fruits of this nation, and yet I’m here. Time won’t heal this shit. Only action will.
Don’t tell me to get over slavery. Don’t tell me we’re on equal footing. There are people who toiled, bled, wept, and died to get me where I am today. There are still people toiling, bleeding, weeping, and dying. I act to honor them, to lift them up. My skin color doesn’t give me a choice.
And if you’re ashamed of history, of what people who looked like you did, then get in this fight. Act. Do something besides pretending that everything is fine. Nothing changes by staying willfully ignorant. Wake up. Stand up. Goddamn it, do something.