3 min read

What do I know about slavery? Nothing. #1619Project

Truth be told, I didn't know that I did not know about slavery.

I grew up in the Western United States. If you've never been here, you might not realize that the West is truly different from the Eastern US. Our economies are bigger and much more successful. Western history has a whole host of other slaves -- specifically the Chinese -- that are often left out of the vague, bleary "historical" conversation about the institution of slavery in the South.

What really did the West have to do with the institution of slavery?

I was raised by people who did little to hide their racism. My mother deeply and firmly despised black people. Once extremely poor, my father spent his adult life railing about the "leeches" of society -- not his siblings and their children who were on assistance, but the mythical "Welfare mother."

By cherry picking our genealogy, I grew up in a family that firmly believed that slavery had nothing to do with us.

Outside of the television I secretly watched in the afternoons when my father was at work, I never saw black people.

I was a Junior in high school when I became friends with someone with dark skin -- not because I had an innate problem with dark skinned people, but rather that I simply never met one.

I met HB on his first day in our white high school in our white suburban life. We were best friends, nearly family, from the moment we met.

He was from Georgia. His mother was a child when he was born, so he was raised by his grandmother. He told me stories of deep, dark woods, poverty, unfairness, and inner family relationships that spanned back decades.

I don't know if he judged me for my lack of knowledge or my general idiocy.

His experience of the world was so vastly different from mine that I could barely fathom it.

Decades later, he told me that I was his entrance into popularity at our high school. A black boy from Georgia thrived at our high school because of me? ME?

To this day, it's hard for me to believe.

We never talked about racism. I don't think we ever talked about race.

We talked about everything -- our shared histories of abuse, the cruelty of people, politics, love, life, poverty, family relationships, spirituality, sexuality...

We talked about everything -- except race and racism, something he experienced every single day of his life.

Through my friendship with HB, I met other black people. I met his family. I met other kids at our school who never ventured into the areas where the rest of the school hung out. These people had been there all a long and I literally had never seen them.

My life blew up after graduation. Disowned by my parents, and forced to keep a secret about it, everything from my past had to be pushed aside. I siloed myself and my life in order to never have to explain my desperate aloneness.

HB joined the military. He would call me in the middle of the night from Germany where he was stationed. I'd hear about his experiences in the Army -- the good and the bad. Sometimes, we'd talk about the insanity of our lives.

We circled each other for decades. A call here. A visit there. He owned a piece of my soul; as I owned a piece of his, as I still own a piece of his soul.

Then, I moved away from California. We argued over stupid stuff. After overhearing a conversation between Horace and another one of our friends, I swore that I would never speak to any of them again.

I have lots of black friends. I've had a lot of black friends and mentors since knowing HB. I've been told off for being a moron (which I deserved) and watched people I love succumb to drug addiction and poverty.

HB is not the only black person I have ever known. Not even close. He was simply the first. He and I were close in a way that I've never replicated with anyone. We were a part of each other.

You're probably wondering how this relates to slavery.

For HB, slavery was something real and present. His great-grandmother had been a slave. His grandmother told him stories of her mother's life on the plantation.

Slavery wasn't something from the distant past for HB.

Slavery for HB was a family member, an ancestor -- beloved and loathed, a real, breathing, and alive in a modern day. It impacted his psyche and his life.

My experience with slavery was intellectual. Slavery was something had happened in this country a very, very long time ago. It involved some jerks (read: not me or my people) abusing some people (not me or my people,) but it had been over for forever, so really -- what are we talking about?

I realize now that this divide is wider than anything I could have ever understood.

Like a lot of things in life, my intellectual understanding shifted suddenly and slowly.

There was a moment when everything came together for me, but that's a story for another day.

I think it's worth focusing on this simple fact -- our intellectual understanding of slavery is not actually worth all that much. It allows us to make excuses, find intellectual rationals for cruelty, and overlook the backbone of capitalism involved in slavery.

An intellectual understanding of a topic is always going to be flawed in the face of someone's actual, living experience.