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The Founding Contradiction


By Robert C. Koehler, Tribune Media Services

How many years are we away from a national apology over slavery?

Wait, scratch that word, “apology.” Too late, not possible. The scope of the wrong was too great. Make that a national atonement — an owning up to the crime, a pause in the collective heartbeat, eye contact, prayer, remorse. And the question: What can we do to right matters?

Perhaps the time is no longer to be measured in generations.

Let’s begin with the names of the insured: Aaron, Abby, Abraham … Chloe, Congo, Courtney … all the sundry Jacks and Jims and Williams … Winney, Woodley, Woodson, Zach. Human beings with single names, like pets. Commodities, severed — for legal purposes — from their souls. No ties to a past, no depth of existence. Here, boy. They came when you whistled. They had a function. And they were worth money to their owners.

We have to understand what we have done. That’s the only way to make sure we’re not still doing it.

Slowly, the tide starts to turn. In 2004, Illinois became the second state, after California, to require all insurance companies doing business within its borders to search their archives and divulge details of insurance policies written on slaves. In August 2004, the Slave Era Policies Register was posted.

It’s a raw, stunning document, peeling back 150 years: This is how it was. You can comb through the names and occupations and policy numbers at your leisure, feel the back of your neck tingle. Here, boy. Daniel, Delia, Dick. Laborer, house servant, farmer. A human being dies. A piece of property is mourned.

This is our legacy, our Founding Contradiction. How long can we pretend it’s over and done with when we haven’t even acknowledged its impact? Slavery permeated the American economy, North and South. Northern insurance companies wrote policies for slaves in Fayette, Ky., and Natchez, Miss., and Edisto Island, S.C. Everybody benefited. Except the slaves.

Eliza, Enoch, Fanny, Ferdinand. Blacksmith, carpenter, bricklayer, washer and ironer. The estimated current value of their unpaid labor is $1.4 trillion.

As I studied the site and felt the slow rise of a nameless emotion — part rage, part grief, part dread — I thought about how we’re all caught up in the callous shortcomings of our time. How can we ever see beyond it? Are we done with the owning of human beings?

Not so long ago, a number of Fortune 500 companies were outed for the practice of purchasing “dead peasant” insurance on their low-level, possibly minimum-wage employees. Wal-Mart had 350,000 of them — life-insurance policies taken out on workers they could have cared less about, without the workers’ permission or knowledge. When the janitor died, the company collected. The family got nothing.

How oddly intertwined is the history of corporate America with the history of human chattel. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, made citizens — persons — of newly freed slaves and prohibited states from abridging their rights. Looked good on paper, but somehow failed to stave off a century of Jim Crow laws.

Yet the 14th Amendment helped somebody. Turns out the new business concept known as the corporation had far more success, in the wake of the Civil War, becoming recognized before the law as a “person” than former slaves did.

Of the first 150 cases involving the 14th Amendment heard by the Supreme Court, 15 involved African-Americans and 135 involved business entities, notes Doug Hammerstrom on reclaimdemocracy.org. And the amendment was so narrowly interpreted that blacks won only one case. “The expansive view of the 14th Amendment that comes down to constitutional law classes today,” he writes “is the result of corporations using (it) as a shield against regulation.”

We’ve been much better at turning a profit than redressing injustice, than healing the Founding Contradiction known as slavery. The ex-slaves got nothing but more bitterness. The fight for reparations — 40 acres and a mule, and a chance to forgive — is far from over.

Isaac, Isabel, Ishmael, Jacob, Jem, Joshua. There were 4 million of them. They weren’t meant to be part of history. They were meant to be worked to death and forgotten. But they’re with us still, mute, single-named, yoked to their policy numbers, yet managing to shake our deepest assumptions of who we are. 

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong atthe Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.

 

© 2013 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

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