I’m sorry for slavery

I’m sorry for slavery. Slavery is a horror I cannot even imagine. It is so gruesome that I can only engage with it through history books and documentaries, and I rarely do. To think of slavery as something that actually occurred in some people’s lives is unbearable.

So I’m sorry for slavery. Now I’ve learned in marriage that saying “I’m sorry” is not always a direct function of being at fault. And it certainly doesn’t require malice. With my wife, I have said “I’m sorry” for any number of things that were not my fault, and even for some things in which I played absolutely no role whatsoever. And yet I’m genuinely sorry. I’m sorry because we are connected, and because we are all connected, and because there is a part of me in everything that happens, and vice versa.

I’m also sorry because the act of being sorry creates the space in which another person can express their hurt and be healed. African-Americans who suffered under slavery – and African-Americans who continue to suffer in its aftermath – will likely have an easier time moving on with their lives if they hear the words “I’m sorry.” We all do. The words “I’m sorry” validate a person’s assessment that a wrong has occurred; it tells them that another human being sees what happened as wrong. It tells them that it’s OK to feel the way they feel.

But there’s more. I’m also sorry for slavery because it was my people who enslaved Africans. I’m a mix of English and German stock, raised near Rochester, New York. Granted, people living in that part of the country fought to end slavery, not to defend it. Frederick Douglass is one of Rochester’s favorite sons, and there are houses in my hometown with secret rooms that were part of the Underground Railroad that ushered escaped African slaves to their freedom in Canada. But it was still my people – Europeans and their descendants in America – who enslaved Africans. (And racism more generally is no stranger to the North, even today.)

Further, I have personally benefited from being on the right side of the slavery divide. In my career, I’ve had all kinds of opportunities I didn’t actually do anything to obtain, and I’ve always been given the benefit of the doubt. I’ve caused all kinds of mischief, and I’ve never really been punished, like a week after I got my driver’s license when I went careening around a residential curve at 40 MPH and almost sideswiped a police officer in an unmarked car. He pulled me over and gave me a good talking to, but he let me off. I have lived in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, and I have benefited from the almost princely status that attains to white men in some parts of the world. (By contrast, even in China, which has no black population to speak of, a Chinese neighbor of mine once said to another neighbor, a Japanese woman who had married a black man, “You’re pretty attractive. Why did you marry a black man?”)

In coaching we talk about the “historical discourses” in which people live – the personal, familial, and cultural patterns of thought and behavior with which they have been conditioned. My historical discourse includes the perpetration of slavery, segregation, and discrimination, as well as all the privilege that accrues to people on my side of the slavery divide. I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry that other people have had to go through life without the privileges I’ve had and with a constant burden of suspicion and distrust that I have never known.

That doesn’t mean I feel guilty about slavery. Guilt is the emotion I’d feel if I assessed that my actions had not measured up to my own standards. I don’t feel guilty about slavery, since I didn’t create it, sustain it, support it, promote it, or defend it. But I’m sorry for it.

I wonder: What happens in us if we feel sorry for something but we never say the words “I’m sorry”? With my clients, I often point out that many of the beliefs we hold on to are actually just constructs we have invented in order to keep at bay the emotions that are in us but that we don’t want to face. What beliefs would one invent in order to keep at bay the emotional reality of feeling sorry for slavery? Do we maintain the slavery divide – that is, do we whites persist in seeing ourselves as separate from black people – because we are unwilling to say we’re sorry for slavery? Would things change if we said we’re sorry? Not guilty, but sorry.

Admittedly, it’s sometimes difficult to say you’re sorry – not because you don’t want to but because you don’t think the words will be heard. With my wife, it’s difficult for me to say “I’m sorry” at the peak of her anger or frustration. Similarly, what would a group of young black men say to me if I sauntered up to them and told them I’m sorry for slavery? With all the justified anger that has festered for decades in part because no one ever said they were sorry, how do I expect them to respond to a middle-aged white guy in a Brooks Brothers outfit walking up to say “I’m sorry”?

So what do I do with the fact that I’m sorry for slavery? I’m genuinely interested in ideas. One thing I thought of was that I should start calling African-American men “sir.” That seems like a good way to start evening things out, since a lot of African-American men I meet call me sir, and have since I was probably about 20! So from now on, I’ll call African-American men sir.

That doesn’t mean I’ll saunter up to groups of young black men to do it. To be honest, like Darrin Wilson I tense up a little when I see a group of young black men in hoodies walking down the center of the street. And that’s a very complicated feeling. To some extent, it may be a legitimate concern, given that the young men are breaking a norm of my community (that is, pedestrians don’t walk down the middle of the street) and it’s a norm-breaking that seems to indicate recklessness or even aggressive indignation. To some extent, maybe the young men are being no more mischievous than I was at that age; it’s just that my mischief took different forms that I find less threatening. And it’s also possible that my response to their kind of mischief is exaggerated by the different-ness of the people making it, and I wonder if some of that is related to the fact that I’ve never said “I’m sorry.”

So I’m sorry. And if anyone has any other ideas on what I should do about it, please let me know at eric@ericmeade.com.