By Manoj Joshi
America has always had a certain vanity about being a beacon of democracy and republicanism. Recent events in Charlottesville reveal that this democratic colossus has feet of clay. Clashes in the small Virginian town, near Washington DC, have been triggered by those opposing the removal of the statue of Robert E Lee, commander of the armies of the Southern states of the US who sought to perpetuate African-American slavery in the US in the 1860s. And 150 years later, the current US President Donald Trump is finding it difficult to condemn their actions, even though many of them profess neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideals. To their credit, a majority of Americans are appalled at the behavior of their president.
The enslavement of people kidnapped from Africa by the millions is a stain on American history that just won’t go away. One reason for this is the incomplete integration of the US. The American constitution formally accepted slavery till the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, a reluctant and inadvertent consequence of a war which was actually fought to keep the American Union intact, not abolish slavery. Indeed, African-Americans only got their civil rights including the right to vote in the mid 1960s, fifteen years after all Indians got them. Racism still pervades the US with white politicians, especially in the South, using all kinds of tricks to disenfranchise the poorer blacks and Hispanics.
The persistence of historical memory, leaping over decades and centuries is not, of course, unusual; there are those in India who are still fighting the battle of Haldighati and have never gotten over the disaster of the 3rd battle of Panipat. And so, this twisted American Civil War replay in Charlottesville.
Following their defeat, Southern states were under martial law and US Congress even saw some African-American legislators in the 1860s and 1870s, but then came a reversal, and they were once again condemned to the bottom of America’s social pile, along with a system of apartheid that forcibly separated the lives of black and white people till the mid 1960s.
In this period, African-Americans were lynched on the flimsiest of pretexts and white Southerners sought to recapture their racist history by honouring many of those who fought against the Union by erecting statues and naming schools and institutions after them. It’s recently that we have seen a movement to remove them.
Charlottesville is at the epicentre of this historical churning. It is a small, pleasant town with a well-known university founded by Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the US, who had estates nearby. He is the principal drafter of the American Declaration of Independence and a towering intellectual of liberal democracy. Another nearby estate belonged to George Washington, the first president of the country, and the man who led its armies to victory.
Slavery loomed much larger in their minds. For one, both used slaves to work their estates. But they were conscious that they were leading a democratic revolution as well. For that reason the word “slavery” never figured in the American constitution, even though a fifth of the American population were African-Americans, mostly slaves. They were counted for the purpose of allocating seats in the US Congress, but needless to say they did not have the vote, leave alone liberty.
Jefferson was ambivalent about slavery, even terming it as a terrifying “fire bell in the night.” But when he died, he simply parcelled out his slaves in his will like any property, including his own children from an African-American mistress. Washington, to his credit, freed or manumitted his slaves on his death.
The election of Donald Trump has opened these terrible wounds. Some whites continue to believe that the US is, or ought to be, a white nation, even though blacks have been there for as long as them, albeit involuntarily. They attack immigration for diluting the country’s whiteness and globalisation for the loss of jobs. Many of these angry white men are the core constituency that propelled Trump to victory.
This article originally appeared in The Times Of India.