Book pages 18-22
Ship Ahoy! Ship Ahoy! Ship Ahoy!
There are hardly any surviving slaves left today, but in Florida
I met an ex-slave who was also the oldest citizen in the United States -
134-year-old Charles Smith, who told me about how he was captured in Africa:
- I come to the United States, when I was only twelve years old.
A black social worker, who had picked me up while I was vagabonding in Florida, had told me about Charles Smith, and brought me to his little house. Both he and the other blacks in the area told me that Charles Smith is different from other blacks and in fact looks down on them. Smith does not understand why the Africans would throw him overboard, which according to historians was quite common in order to save the children from slavery. But the reason Smith and many other Africans are not able to understand black Americans today is their lack of understanding of just how much centuries of slavery affect the mind. Charles Smith was never brought up to be a slave, with all the subjugation of the mind this involves. And it dawned on me that if this subjugation had left such deep scars on the mind, then the abolition of slavery was not, after all, tantamount to freedom.
Many of the things I recalled reading about in the
newspapers during my schooldays I now, in my journey, saw in a new light. I
remembered how only in the 1960's did the U.S. finally become a democracy, when
all its citizens gained the right to vote. I was surprised to find that, for
instance, the state of Louisiana has more than 257,000 illiterates. Is it not
the duty of a democracy to educate all of its citizens?
Martin Luther King - and the thousands of civil rights demonstrators he came
to symbolize - changed the most overt and primitive forms of discrimination.
But when his struggle for economic equality began, he was killed - and this
most significant part of his dream seemed to die with him.
"I have a dream, that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former
slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at
the table of brotherhood. I have a dream, that my four little children will one
day live in a nation where they will not be judged on the color of their skin,
but on the content of their character. I have a dream, that one day every
valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain made low..."
Martin Luther King's beautiful dreams hung continuously in my consciousness, but it soon became obvious that the only dream which perhaps has come true is the one that blacks are no longer entirely judged on the color of their skin, but also on the content of their character - a character which will be forever separate from the white until the "hills and valleys" of society are leveled. The depressing thing is that the character traits one has after centuries of oppression do not match the ideals of those whites whose character has been molded by having been oppressors for centuries.
When I realized how much the character traits of underclass blacks deviate from those of whites and of Africans, it made me understand the enormous subjugation of the mind which slavery had brought about - a system which was not only based on violence, but which raised people to understand primarily the language of violence. The fact that today this language is not only understood but is also spoken by those who have had to hear it for centuries should come as no surprise.
But when like me you come from Europe and have, for instance, never seen a pistol, you receive a shock you will never forget the first time you hear the tone of this language. After only a few days in this new country, I was held up by gunmen - a type of character I had never met. The fear I felt was a fear I had never experienced before: the fear of another human being.
My journey afterwards became to a large degree a journey into this human being. And the more I came to understand and like this human being, the more irrational seemed the society which had created him. I did not then understand that sunglass-covered hatred, yet it reflected such a shocking distortion of my own perceived humanity that it forced me to ask how I could possibly he seen in such a way. Could I myself be the cause of that anger? Could I myself ever end up harboring such anger? Even such questions were beyond my imagination, hut from the day I faced that cold "piece" of American reality I began to understand to what degree fear and anger have come to characterize black/white relations.
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