Should there be a statute of limitations on history?
It’s something I’ve been thinking about, especially recently, because, you know, Charleston.
After we left Asheville and the Blue Ridge Parkway, we headed east, descending out of the hills toward the ocean.
Charleston, South Carolina is a gorgeous place with friendly people and wonderful food. It's a great place to stroll and look at the old, striking houses seemingly around every corner.
And the vast majority of that beauty is because of slavery.
That's just the truth. If you're taking a tour of a beautiful house and the guide says, “This house was built in 1796,” what she's saying is that the house was built by slaves. The economy of the Old South was built on slaves and South Carolina was the epicenter. One statistic that stuck with me was that in the United States there were fifteen people who owned a thousand or more slaves, and eight of those fifteen lived in South Carolina.
Minnesota entered the Union as a free state and our governor was the first to volunteer troops to fight in the Civil War, but that doesn’t mean our hands are clean. We had our rich people - lumber barons, land speculators and others. People who built fortunes through dubious means. The French writer, Honore Balzac once wrote, “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” That's not always true, but it's true enough.
It doesn't even have to be a great fortune. I was once in a Planning and Zoning meeting when a Native American college professor who disliked my position screamed at me that I was a “disgusting white colonizer.”
Technically, I suppose I'm the great-grandson of disgusting white colonizers, but after family living on this land for almost 150 years, I’m not giving it back, so I guess the shoe still fits. It’s one of those memories that plays back every so often and still ranks as one of the ten worst nights of my life, in part because as a straight white American male in my sixth decade, I'm perhaps the least oppressed person on the planet. But I have friends who are minorities or from marginalized communities and I can't help but wonder if behind their politeness, they’re choking back the urge to scream at me.
Lingering over the past often doesn't serve a useful purpose. Almost fifty years ago when my wife and I were on our honeymoon, we were in a youth hostel in Switzerland and saw a young Norwegian woman get up and leave the room if a German entered. That had to be something she learned from her parents or grandparents, because she wasn't nearly old enough to have lived through the second World War herself. I'm not sure what point was being served by her behavior, but it seemed like it was making her life measurably worse.
Maybe there should be a statute of limitations on history. But that's assuming what's past is actually past. I have Native American friends who lived through the Indian boarding schools, where the motto was, “Kill the Indian to save the Man.” I have Black friends who worry about their children being stopped by the police or are tired of being followed through stores. Leaving the past behind is easier said than done when it keeps slapping you in the face.
If you have a lot of money and want to move to Charleston to buy a beautiful old house go ahead. I'm not trying to make you feel bad about yourself. At least, not if you are clear-eyed about the past.
The most vivid memory I have of our visit to Charleston was something that happened during a tour of the McLeod Plantation. The tour guide was explaining what some of the enslaved people went through to raise the tons of rice that built the family fortune. A woman who was there celebrating her fiftieth birthday spoke up and said, “If the conditions were so bad, why did the Africans come here?”
There was a brief, stunned silence from the rest of the group and then the guide explained, gently but forcefully, that there was no choice involved. People didn't come here from Angola, Congo or Ghana as a career opportunity. They were torn from their homes and families by force, and that was perhaps the least traumatic thing that happened to them the rest of their lives.
Then the woman said, “I had no idea.”
History is something I struggle with. With luck perhaps most of us can choose not to be haunted by the past. But it’s unforgiveable to forget it.
Copyright 2023 Brent Olson