Forgive me for using a long-outdated term to refer to African-Americans, but for some reason, I feel today that it is necessary to say something to make people, black and white, understand the deep pain and damage white supremacy has caused in this country.
When I was a child, I, my siblings and my friends played “pretend.” We’d play “house,” and “school” and “church,” perfectly imitating, it seemed, those whom we had so regularly observed in each of those settings. We knew how to play a strict mother or an energetic preacher. We were children and children “play” and imitate what they see. Undoubtedly, what they see, and how they internalize what they see, helps shape them for the rest of their lives.
Play is what children do, but I never thought about the kind of playing African-American children might have done in years past, during slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. So, I was taken aback when a man, describing slave life in Richmond, Virginia in 1853, reported that he observed slave children playing “auction.” That’s right. They had seen so many people auctioned off to owners that they had gotten the procedure down pat. They knew how to imitate the voice of the auctioneer. They knew how to do the public examination of a slave up for sale, to make sure he or she was worth the money that was being asked for. That meant touching their arms and ankles, looking into their mouths to check the state of their teeth, and probably worse. They practiced dragging a screaming mother away from her child or children as either she or they were sold. They had the process down. There were slave children eager to act as auctioneers, and others who were wiling to be the unfortunate ones sold away.
They replayed the ongoing activity that was breaking the hearts and spirits of human beings, that was ,in fact, breaking their hearts and spirits.
The man doing the reporting was one William Chambers. He was a Scotsman, a publisher in his land, and he .was in Richmond, Virginia in 1853. While there decided to observe a slave auction. He had heard they were events full of misery and despair and he wanted to see for himself. He noted that there was not much misery, that those being sold were calm and showed little emotion. He surmised that, since “the Negro” was not fully human and was certainly inferior to white people, that they could not feel pain, not even as their children were wrested from their arms and they cried – both the parents and their children.
I listened to the story on National Public Radio’s This American Life, and got stuck. It never occurred to me that slave children practiced through playing their own oppression. They played auction.
It has always been painful to be black-skinned, not only in America but all over the world, but to listen to this story and to realize how deeply embedded in the very souls of black people is the notion of our being unworthy of respect did something to me. When we played “house” or “church” or “school” when I was little, we were aspiring to be good mothers or teachers. We respected the preacher whom we might imitate. We never “played” games that said we were inherently worth nothing.
Langston Hughes wrote, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and one of the lines of that poem reads, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” Surely. How can one’s spirit, housed in one’s soul, not descend to depths of despair when one is being treated like an object, with no emotions, no feelings, and no rights? That is a question over which I have pondered for a long time.
But when I hear this story about the slave children “playing auction,” my heart sank. There is all this hoopla today about the Confederate Flag, with lovers of the Confederacy saying that the flag is about their heritage. That is true; it is about their heritage, but it is also about a culture, a society, a land and its policies, which created a situation where little black children would play a game which would contribute to their own demise and further dehumanization.
I am crushed, yet again. This racism knows no bounds…
I think every politician running for public office ought to be required to take some American history. I think they ought to be fed, force-fed if necessary, the history of what racism and white supremacy has done to a huge swath of American citizens. Whomever becomes president of this nation ought to be well-schooled to the reasons this nation is in such a mess when it comes to race. I think every person running for office, federal, state or local, ought to be made to read and understand the reason …the Negro cries.
Racism and white supremacy were like daggers, dug into the hearts, souls and wills of black people, without regret. The belief was that black people were not human, could not feel…and so it did not matter.
But it did matter, and it does matter. There are children of those slain in Charleston, South Carolina almost two weeks ago who are crying; there are widows and husbands who are mourning and trying to find a way to carry on. It’s not just these most recent atrocious killings which makes their journey difficult; it is the fact that for years, they, as members of the African-American community, have been fighting the forces which would kill their spirits, and carrying on, moving forward, in a land which clearly still has little regard for them as human beings.
Whenever a person is traumatized, it takes time to heal. African-Americans have been continually traumatized and hae put their shattered souls and spirits to the side because they had to, we had to, in order to keep going. We have pushed against the system which has no regard for us, and we have for the most part prevailed.
But the Negro cries. We cry as we move forward. We have to move forward, but we cannot stop the tears, and so we do both.
Any politician who cannot or will not acknowledge that this country is a mess because of white supremacy, any politician who is more concerned with the Southern base, or the white base, but is not concerned with the programs and policies which may have our children playing games that are in place to ensure their own demise …is a coward. I don’t want any more cowards in office. We have had too many.
The children played auction.
I am sick …
A candid observation …
Story about Chambers was heard on National Public Radio (NPR)’s This American Life