Robinson: On Haley Barbour’s ‘diddly’ sense of slavery’s history

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Slavery
Slavery

By Eugene Robinson

It was bad enough when Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell proclaimed “Confederate History Month” without mentioning slavery, but at least he came to his senses and apologized. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s contention that the whole controversy “doesn’t amount to diddly” is much worse.

“I don’t know what you would say about slavery,” Barbour told CNN, “but anybody that thinks that you have to explain to people that slavery is a bad thing, I think that goes without saying.”

And that’s the problem — Barbour thinks it “goes without saying.” The governor of the state whose population includes the nation’s highest percentage of African Americans believes it is appropriate to “honor” those who fought for the Confederacy. Clearly, he has no problem revisiting the distant past. Yet he sees no reason to mention the vile, unthinkable practices — state-sanctioned kidnapping, torture and rape — that those Confederate soldiers were fighting to protect.

It amounts to much more than “diddly” that so many Americans try hard to avoid coming to terms with the reality of slavery. It wasn’t just “a bad thing.” Littering is a bad thing. Slavery was this nation’s Original Sin, and yet many people will not look at it except through a gauze of Spanish moss.

The Atlantic slave trade was one of the last millennium’s greatest horrors. An estimated 17 million Africans, most of them teenagers, were snatched from their families, stuffed into the holds of ships and brought to the New World. As many as 7 million of them died en route, either on the high seas or at “seasoning” camps in the Caribbean where they were “broken” to the will of their masters.

If he has never done so, Barbour should hold in his hands some of the leg irons, manacles and other restraints that were used to subdue the Africans. He should visit some of the plantations where slave cabins still stand — there are plenty in his state — to get a sense of how the Africans lived. He should spend a long, hot day picking cotton. He should read the accounts of plantation life written by former slaves, and then he should explain why there is any reason to “honor” soldiers who fought to perpetuate a system that could never have functioned without constant, deliberate, unflinching cruelty.

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