Should descendants of slave-holders feel ashamed? This is the issue raised by Glen David Andrews, a Black trombonist from New Orleans. I’d come to know Glen David when a filmmaker friend and I were considering making a documentary about him. That project came to nothing, but I still follow him on Facebook, where he has been outspoken on many issues and not shy about schooling those he thinks need correction.
Last year Glen David took on Wynton Marsalis, the New Orleans jazz trumpeter, now the director of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Marsalis had stirred up controversy by telling the Washington Post that rap and hip hop were a “pipeline of filth,” and “more damaging to African Americans than the statue of Robert E. Lee.” Marsalis had been among those prominent citizens of New Orleans calling for the removal of Confederate statues, but that did not get him off the hook with Glen David.
He had serious problems with Marsalis’s comments, which he expressed in an open letter on Facebook. After pointing out that rappers are not the first Black artists to perform vulgar material (Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey), he got to his main point about Confederate statues. Why, he asks, are there monuments to “these guys who wanted to divide the country, keep human beings in chains where they were beaten, families divided, women were raped by master or whomever wanted her that night, men were castrated, beaten until they died, hung – this is what these statues represent.
“I have been to Germany nearly 20 times since 1994 I have never not one time seen a statue or memorial to Hitler or any of his Generals, so I ask the question why do we have them in America? [The] worst part is when I hear ‘that's our heritage’ or ‘that's my ancestors.’ Then I say you should be ashamed to say I'm proud my great great great grandfather was a murderer, rapist slave owner because that's what they were.”
I had been thinking about this same thing myself, and when I saw Glen David’s post, I responded: “Some of my ancestors were slaveholders and I am ashamed of them.” He wrote back: “Thanks for stating what I believe is how most of these people’s descendants feel.”
That is generous, although I’m not sure it’s true. But the issue of opposing racial injustice is more complicated than deploring slaveholding ancestors or tearing down Confederate statues. I believe that every white person in this country should be ashamed of the treatment of African-Americans, past and present. That is why I support reparations. But are those of us with Confederates in the closet more in need of expiation? Do we bear an extra portion of blame?
The harms of slavery still resonate today. Some believe that life experiences alter gene expression and that trauma leaves its genetic fingerprint on subsequent generations. This is controversial but even without invoking science, it is clear that the racist ideology of the Lost Cause continues to do its terrible work.
Guilt has no utility unless it moves the guilt-stricken to action. While the wrong of owning human property cannot be righted, I do believe that those of us whose ancestors were slaveholders have a special obligation to work to dismantle the system of racism. It is an evil with our name on it.