Everything is Not Slavery

Terrance Heath

Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t occur to me to respond to the madness of Michele Bachmann. There’s a point at which merely legitimizes mindless rantings like hers, and dignifies them are more than they deserve. However, there is a point at which those unhinged ravings must be addressed: the point at which they insult the memories of — as well as the present realities of countless people.

Ms. Bachmann’s latest is one such case in point:

Yesterday, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) delivered a “speech filled with urgent and violent rhetoric” at a gathering sponsored by the Independence Institute in Denver. During what was originally billed as a “personal legislative briefing,” Bachmann “got downright biblical” when describing her unwavering opposition to health care reform:

This [health care reform] cannot pass…What we have to do today is make a covenant, to slit our wrists, be blood brothers on this thing. This will not pass. We will do whatever it takes to make sure this doesn’t pass…Right now, we are looking at reaching down the throat and ripping the guts out of freedom. And we may never be able to restore it if we don’t man up and take this one on.”

According to the Colorado Independent, Bachmann also claimed that many Americans pay more than half their income in taxes, adding “it’s nothing more than slavery.” She affirmed that “you’re either for us or against us on this issue” and bragged about being the country’s “second-most hated Republican woman.” Rather than spending quality time in her home district during August recess, some speculate that Bachmann’s trip signals her “branching out” and sowing some “rich, right-wing Western soil” in preparation for a future national run.

I’ve said it before, but it obviously bears repeating: Everything is NOT Slavery.

After months of hearing everything from national service programs, to the stimulus, and even health care reform to slavery, somebody finally said it. That somebody being brooklynbadboy at DailyKos.

Got it? SLAVERY is like SLAVERY. It means someone OWNS YOU. It means if you are a female slave, your owner can take away your children and sell them, forbid to speak your native tongue, or even rename you to indicate whose property you are, among other horrors.

THAT is what Slavery is. Do not compare it to going without health insurance. Do not compare it with not being able to get married. Do not compare American Slavery with anything other than real people who are currently enslaved. Black people find it offensive to our ancestors.

I speak as someone who has traced his lineage back to at least one slave ancestor.

By then, I was in the middle of my career as a college student. I was no longer eight years old. I’d seen Roots. I’d read the book too. At my dad’s suggestion, I also read Jubilee, Margaret Walker’s fictional account of her grandmother’s stories of her mother, Vyry, a slave. That slavery was a part of American history, as well as my own personal history was no longer abstract. Growing up African American in the south made that pretty clear. (EDITOR’S NOTE: It was made even more real by the knowledge that Walker’s book is set in my parents’ hometown – which was home for many generations of our family, and still is to some.)

Up to that point, even though I’d yet to identify a slave ancestor, the whole subject became personal for me. I’d seen enough pictures like this one and read enough accounts of how wounds like this were inflicted that they were real enough to me, even if I’d never felt the sting of the whip or known for sure an ancestor of mine had. It was no longer entertaining to me to hear Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara quip to Prissy ” I’ll sell you South I will, I swear I will! I’ll sell you South!” or threaten “I’ll whip the hide off you!” Because I knew that, in those times, it was not an idle threat. Seeing Gone with the Wind again after reading Jubilee, I realized that there a whole other drama that wasn’t portrayed on camera.

…I can’t speak for what its like to come to grips with the reality of “having owned,” or with your ancestors having owned. But I remembered, when I read about Sharpton’s discovery, my own experience as I sat in the basement of the University of Georgia Library, looking at the microfiche display and the name on the slave schedule that took me back as far into my own history as I’d ever gone. And confirming a connection to history I’d only assumed existed before.

… Stripped of the anonymity of history, the slave masters of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s ancestors now have entered his life, reminding him of their existence even when he signs his name.

“So now, you have to, every time you write your name, think about the only reason you have that name is somebody owned your forefathers,” Sharpton said Monday on CNN.

Sharpton has joined a small subset of African Americans who know the identity of a slave ancestor and the identity of that person’s owner. Such knowledge is relatively rare (though genealogists say it need not be) and it runs counter to the traditional reticence with which African Americans have treated slavery. Yes, the broad narrative is known: that during roughly 250 years of slavery, a new people was born from the blending of Africa and America. But often, little more than that is clear, but for family legends and oral traditions.

I wasn’t intending to find Henry Heath, when I set out to track down some family legends, but once I started, the road led at least as far back as him. I didn’t know anything more about Henry Heath than his name, that he was another man’s property from birth until he was freed after the civil war, and that after he was freed he kept the name of the man who had owned him. I know that much, because I still have that name. Only now I know where it came from.

Again, to Ms. Bachman and others, nothing you are comparing to slavery looks anything like it. Slavery looked more like this.

Got it?

For starters, slaves didn’t get much (if anything) in return for their work,  other than subsistence level food and shelter.

The proposed national service program doesn’t read much like a slave contract in that light.

Obama and Biden will call on citizens of all ages to serve. They’ll set a goal that all middle school and high school students engage in 50 hours of community service a year, and develop a plan for all college students who engage in 100 hours of community service to receive a fully-refundable tax credit of $4,000 for their education. Obama and Biden will encourage retiring Americans to serve by improving programs available for individuals over age 55, while at the same time promoting youth programs such as Youth Build and Head Start.

Do people read this stuff or think about it before they start spazzing?

“Setting a goal” doesn’t sound like a requirement. And no “slave” would get anything resembling $4,000 (to go towards education, at that) for 100 hours of work.

Health care reform isn’t “slavery.” Not only that, but a system in which our out-of-pocket costs have gone up 34% in three years, where the uninsured face an avalanche of costs, where the rest of us shell out an extra $1,000 a year to pay for the uninsured, where health care costs may hit $2.5 trillion this year (about $8,000 per person), all while we’re spending $2.3 trillion and still not getting what we pay for isn’t exactly what I’d call ideal. Nor would any other sane person.

Note to conservatives: Wanna be taken seriously? Stop screaming words like “socialism” and “slavery” and maybe start offering actual solutions.

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