Slavery as the Original Sin of America?
For this semester I’ll offer my reflections on an introductory, freshmen-level course on western core texts that I am teaching.   With religious arguments sanctioning slavery at their peak, Frederick Douglass delivered his “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July” on July 5, 1852. Addressed to a largely white sympathetic audience in Rochester,… The post Slavery as the Original Sin of America? appeared first on VoegelinView.

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For this semester I’ll offer my reflections on an introductory, freshmen-level course on western core texts that I am teaching.

 

With religious arguments sanctioning slavery at their peak, Frederick Douglass delivered his “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July” on July 5, 1852. Addressed to a largely white sympathetic audience in Rochester, New York, Douglass states that the slave owes nothing and has no positive feelings towards the American Founding, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.” The American proclamations of liberty, equality, and national greatness are only “a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.” In fact, “there is not nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States.”
Because of slavery’s denial of African-Americans the rights, liberties, and privileges of citizenship, Douglass writes that “The blessing in which you this day rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me.” Such a denial makes America “false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.” This is America’s “great sin and shame” and makes the virtues and excellences of its founders incomplete and the promise of the country unfulfilled.
While we would agree with Douglass that the slave is a moral, intellectual, and responsible being and therefore entitled to the rights, liberties, and privileges of citizenship, we are still left with the question whether we, as a country, can transcend the “great sin and shame” of slavery. Since the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, there have been two main attempts. The first is the belief that the full legal restoration of rights, liberties, and privileges of citizenship to African-Africans wipes out the sin and shame of slavery. Albeit delayed, the promise of the American Founding has been fulfilled and white Americans should no longer feel guilt about what their ancestors did.
The second attempt is to accept that all racial and ethnic cultures are equally deserving of respect and import. Because white American norms, mores, and values dominate in the United States, these conventions need to be acknowledged and dismantled. Or, in its more extreme form, confessions need to be coerced by white Americans for their privilege. The most current manifestations of this movement is the language of diversity in the academy and corporations, the philosophy of critical race theory in law, and the activist movement, Black Lives Matters, in the streets.
However, both attempts are ultimately unsatisfactory because slavery is not just a sin but the original sin of America, and original sin cannot be erased. For Christians, humans have inherited a tainted nature and proclivity to sin from their time of their birth. Likewise, America cannot erase its original sin of slavery. We can acknowledge it, we can address it, and we can make amends for it, but we cannot overcome it. To do so is to claim that we can transcend history.
Thus, both attempts – white denial and white obsequious – fail because they assume that the sin of slavery can be overcome. But it can’t – and perhaps it shouldn’t. For to overcome original sin is to believe that human action alone can remake the world anew. Yet in spite of all of postmodern thinkers’ attempts, no amount of deconstruction will ever change the past from what it is. We should acknowledge that we live in a broken world and work to mend it, while knowing, that it never will be mended. Instead of angrily denying or fawningly agreeing, we should accept and acknowledge the original sin of slavery and work to heal the nation, while knowing, that we as a country will never be fully healed. To do is to acknowledge sin, accept our limitations, and not attempt to be gods.
Fredrick Douglass had faith that the United States could change in spite of its original sin and that the Christian church had a critical role in the national liberation of slavery. Although religion was the center of the problem for sanctioning slavery, it also could be the main solution with a reexamination of the Bible. According to Douglass, one could find that all humans are equal before God in the text: “You profess to believe ‘that, of one blood, God made all nations of men to dwell on the face of all the earth,” and hath commanded all men everywhere to love one another.” For Douglass, the American church could learn from its English brethren to abolish slavery, for once the English church stood behind the decision to abolish slavery so did the rest of the country.
As a nation we continue to struggle with the issue of race, but we need not resign ourselves to a position of passivity and denial nor submission and self-confession but one of acknowledgment, acceptance, and action. This may be national legislation and judicial rulings or local acts of activism and neighborhood support or the private, honest self-examination of one’s own conscience. Original sin does not have to define us; it can motivate us to do better while knowing that the work will never finish. To move forward in such an endeavor requires a type of faith that our efforts, while temporary, will not be entirely undone.

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