Answering Bundy: Why We Must Tell the Story of Slavery in America

Cliven Bundy deserved the outrage his comments on African Americans received - but his ignorance shows why a 'Haggadah’ retelling the trauma of slavery in the U.S. is so urgent.

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Cliven Bundy’s press conference — the one where he wondered whether African Americans were better off under slavery — is being met with outrage on the left and right. The Nevada rancher deserved all of it, even if he’s in the right in his land feud with the Federal government. But I haven’t yet seen mention of the fact that the story of Bundy’s remarks broke over Passover.

The reason it’s relevant is that Passover is the holiday on which we recline for the purpose of remembering that, among other things, we were slaves in Egypt. We have been doing this every year for millennia. For the fact is that slavery marks a people for all time. How is it possible for this to be any less so for African Americans than for Jews?

Yet we do not yet have a Haggadah — I use the word metaphorically — for the story of slavery in America. It’s not my purpose to denigrate what histories we do have. On the contrary. But we have no common book or ritual for instilling in our youth, not to mention our adults, the facts, the trauma of slavery. This is work that strikes me as in need of doing.

This is a point I made when the Academy Award for best picture went to “12 Years a Slave.”  It was, I thought, a powerful and important film and a perfect choice. It happens that I’ve read a number of works of African American history — including the monumental autobiographies “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself” and “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” by Harriet Jacobs.

Yet until going to the theater earlier this year, I’d never heard of Solomon Northup’s memoir that served as the basis for the film. It turns out that I was not alone. Steve McQueen, the director who made “12 Years a Slave,” told National Public Radio here that he himself had not known of the memoir until he was introduced to it by his wife. “I was totally stunned,” he told NPR. “It was like a bolt coming out of the sky . . . I live in Amsterdam where Anne Frank is a national hero.”

Anne Frank, McQueen went on to say, is “not just a national hero, she’s a world hero, and for me this book read like Anne Frank’s diary but written 97 years before — a firsthand account of slavery.” One reason McQueen and the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, who have seen his movie were so stunned is that there are not a lot of first-hand, written accounts of slavery.

One reason for this is that it was forbidden for slaves in America to learn to read or write. It was prohibited for free persons to teach slaves to read or write. Solomon Northup, a free man, had learned to read and write (and play the violin) before he was cast into slavery. So we have only the rare written accounts from the slaves’ perspective, though the federal government did, in the 1930s, conduct more than 2,000 interviews with former slaves. We have almost no narratives of the Middle Passage by Africans who endured it.

All the more reason to treasure the accounts that we do have, to burnish - not embellish - but to honor and publish them, to make them into books, movies, documentaries, to tell and retell these stories. All the greater the logic of preserving such sites as the African Burial Ground that was discovered during construction in downtown Manhattan and, though it was found on some of the most valuable real estate in the world, was laid aside for a national monument

It is no one’s fault but Cliven Bundy’s that he failed to appreciate the difference between the plight African Americans are in today and the plight they were in during the era of chattel slavery. But that only increases the urgency of unearthing, telling, and retelling the story of slavery in America. It is a story on which neither Cliven Bundy nor even the Simple Child need be left wondering.

The author is editor of The New York Sun. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.