Deflection and Distortion

Clint Smith

I think about all of the times, growing up, when I... sat in class and heard a white classmate say, “Well, my ancestors didn’t own slaves," or heard a political commentator on television say, “Why are we still talking about slavery? People need to get over it." Or a politician say, “We can’t wallow in the past. It’s time to focus on the future." When I hear these deflections, I think of all the ways this country attempts to smother conversations about how its past has shaped its present. How slavery is made to sound as if it happened in a prehistoric age instead of only a few generations ago.

In his 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that the story the country tells about its relationship to chattel slavery is willfully distorted. “Our histories tend to discuss American slavery so impartially, that in the end nobody seems to have done wrong and everybody was right. Slavery appears to have been thrust upon unwilling helpless America, while the South was blameless in becoming its center… One is astonished in the study of history at the recurrence of the idea that evil must be forgotten, distorted, skimmed over."

from How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, p. 101.