From Slavery to Obama: Race in America

"God gave Noah, the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time." -James Baldwin

The seemingly impromptu (though apparently planned at the last minute) statement by President Obama on the Trayvon Martin case last Friday may be the most important statement he has made on race relations during his presidency.

In March 2008, he fought to defend and save his campaign for president from a tidal wave of attacks against him tied to his years of membership in a church in Chicago pastored by Reverend Jeremiah Wright. In a speech in Philadelphia he extensively spoke about the history of race in America and its impact upon our current generation.

However, neither on Election Night in Grant Park nor in his inaugural speech did he speak so directly and candidly about the "African-American experience" as in his recent comments about the Trayvon Martin case.

Charles Blow, in a recent column in the New York Times wrote:

"On Friday the president reached past one man and one boy and one case in one small Florida town, across centuries of slavery and oppression and discrimination and self-destructive behavior, and sought to place this charged case in a cultural context."

In his epic treatise, The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, renowned sociologist and historian W.E.B. DuBois, commenting on the legacy of slavery in the United States said, "the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color-line."

More than a hundred years after he wrote those words, the struggle for civil rights and racial equality remain a recurring theme in our history. James W. Loewen, in his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, wrote:

"Perhaps the most pervasive theme in our history is the domination of black America by white America. Race is the sharpest and deepest division in American life...No genre of our popular culture goes untouched by race ... Black white relations became the central issue in the Civil War, which killed almost as many Americans as died in all our other wars combined."

Slavery, the Civil War and nearly a century of racial segregation stand as stains on the moral fabric of the United States. Notwithstanding the election and reelection of Barack Obama as the first African-American as president, frank discussion on race relations in our nation and the historical impact of the institution of slavery upon subsequent generations remain muted and problematical.

At the University of San Francisco teach a course I created called "From Slavery to Obama," a 15-week course in the College of Arts & Sciences. The course has been designed to enable honest and critical discussion about race in 21st century America.

The copyrighted syllabus for the course includes, but is not limited to, required readings from such books and authors as:
  • The Peculiar Institution: Slavery In the Ante-Bellum South, Kenneth Stampp

  • In The Name of The Father: Washington's Legacy, Slavery And The Making of A Nation, Francois Furstenberg
  • Children of Fire: A History of African-Americans, Thomas C. Holt
  • A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn
  • Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880, Dr.W.E.B.DuBois
  • Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, 1992, by Gary Wills,
  • Twenty Years of Congress, Volume I, James Gillespie Blaine, Proceedings of the 39th Congress of the United States, March 4th, 1865 to March 4th, 1867 related to Freedman's Bureau, Civil Rights Act, 14th Amendment
  • From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, Ninth Edition, John Hope Franklin
  • Freedom Road, Howard Fast
  • The Souls of Black Folk, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois
  • "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?" Speech of Frederick Douglas, July 5th, 1852
  • "The Last Compromise" The American Interest Magazine, Walter Russell Meade
  • Lies My Teacher Told Me, James E. Lowen
  • The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
  • There has never been a nationally organized coordinated effort to have community based discussions about race and the historical consequences and impact of slavery and the Civil War upon subsequent generations of the great great grandchildren of slave owners and the great great grandchildren of slaves. Almost 50 years ago, Dr. King dreamed that one day they would sit down together "at the table of brotherhood."

    President Obama's recent comments about the Trayvon Martin case may just be what America needs now in the 21st century to initiate such a national dialogue.

    White and black Americans have to summon the honesty and moral courage to acknowledge that, from slavery to Obama:

    "There is no denying that an enormous amount of violence -- both physical and psychological -- is aimed at black men. That violence is both interracial and intra-racial.. Too many black men inflict that violence on one another, feeding a self-destructive cycle of victimization until hope is crushed to the ground and opportunity seems beyond the sky." -Charles Blow, New York Times)

    Obama has now spoken. Now, what are we going to do?