In the past year, some 50 scholarly works on slavery have been published. Add dozens of Web sites, children's books and novels and at least one parody, "The Wind Done Gone." And, if that was not enough, there was the DNA confirmation of Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings.
The resonance of the Jefferson- Hemings affair provides a reminder of how much slavery has become part of contemporary politics. Bill Clinton realized this early on; hence the debate over The Apology and his appointment of the Commission on Race and Reconciliation. Congress has also gotten into the act, mandating that Civil War battle sites supervised by the National Park Service address slavery. Disputes over the Confederate flag and Confederate History Month have roiled politics in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Virginia, and California has required insurance companies to divulge if they have ever insured slave property. Finally, there is the matter of reparations, which has found advocates in some of the nation's prominent litigators.
It would be comforting to conclude that recognition of slavery's importance to the development of our economy, politics and culture has driven Americans to a consideration of the past. But there clearly is more to the current interest in slavery. There is a recognition that American racism was founded in slavery, and a general, if inchoate, understanding that any attempt to address race in the present must also address slavery in past.
This attempt has become imperative as American society perceptibly grows more segregated, the benefits of economic growth are unevenly and unfairly distributed among races, and a previous generation's remedies for segregation and inequality are discarded as politically unacceptable.
In short, behind the interest in slavery is the crisis of race. The confluence of the history of slavery and the politics of race reveals that slavery has become a language, a way to talk about race, in a society in which blacks and whites hardly talk to each other at all. In slavery, Americans have found a voice to address some of their deepest hurts and the depressing reality of how much of American life — jobs; housing; schools; access to medical care, to justice and even to a taxi — is controlled by race.
But while slavery serves as an entry point for a dialogue on race, it is not an easy one. For slavery carries with it deep anger, resentment, indignation and bitterness for some, embarrassment, humiliation and shame for others. The complications can be seen in the introduction of slavery into what had been a lily-white representation of Colonial Williamsburg — by staging a slave auction. The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People objected, finding the re-creation insulting to people of African descent — a painful reminder of what no one wanted to have recalled. The director of the project, Christie Coleman, refused to retreat, insisting that slavery was an integral part of the history of colonial Williamsburg. The N.A.A.C.P. conceded Ms. Coleman's point.
The presentation of slavery at Colonial Williamsburg has since become routine, and the results have been astounding. Visitors get caught up in the re-enactments. Some offer to help slaves escape. Others protect slaves from abusive masters. Some turn on slaveowners, and not merely to debate the issue; several visitors have had to be physically restrained. Lest it be thought that it is only the visitors who forget they are witnesses to a re- enactment, the actors — mostly young black men and women — have been caught up in it as well. They report that while playing slaves they were often treated as slaves, not merely by visitors but by others as well, setting in motion nightmarish fantasies.
Viewing the present through the lens of the past is useful, necessary and perhaps inevitable. But it is also dangerous. If the re-enactment in Williamsburg and the new interest in slavery show how the past can illuminate, they also show how the differences between past and present can become blurred rather than clarified.
At the beginning of the 21st century, almost a century and a half after
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Americans are again struggling with
slavery, and in so doing hope to vanquish slavery's legacy: the burden
of race. The films, re-enactments, museums and books, as well as the politics,
are part of that struggle. In turning to the past to understand the present,
it has become evident that Americans will not be, in Lincoln's words, forever
free until they have mastered slavery as slavery once mastered them.
Ira Berlin is author of ``Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America.''