Guest columnist Michael Pill: We are all children of Africa: a white man’s view of our racial divide

  • Nineteenth century bilboes for a child (front) and an adult, typically found on slave ships, are displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History on Jan. 25, 2012. AP

Published: 6/1/2020 3:04:44 PM

Anthropologists agree the ancestors of modern humans migrated out of Africa, so we are all children of the same mother. Us white folks who got bleached out in our wandering are just pale-faced descendants of black Africans.

Racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and other religious prejudice — all the ways we divide ourselves from one another — are like layers of an onion. We suffer from a legacy of ancient tribalism dating back to the Ice Ages, conditioning us to hate or fear whoever is different. In some languages the name for one’s own tribe means “human being,” with the implication that whoever is not of our tribe must be subhuman.

As a white male Jew, I enjoy all the privilege of my race and gender, while occasionally being reminded what it is like to be on the wrong side of bigotry. I grew up in a small Iowa town where “Jew” was a verb, meaning an honest person would not “Jew” you. My immigrant family fled from Czarist Russia, where Jews were robbed, raped and murdered with impunity.

As a boy my grandfather hid with his family in the cellar of their house while Cossacks massacred the family next door. For him, Europe was a graveyard where relatives who remained simply disappeared in the Holocaust of World War II. He lectured me against dating non-Jewish women because, “In the end, you’re nothing but a dirty Jew to them.”

Yet in the early 1960s he rented an apartment to an interracial couple, saying of African-Americans, “They treat these people here like we were treated in the Old Country. We have to break down those barriers.”

There are ghettoes in the United States like there were ghettoes in Europe; the difference is the ethnicity of those confined in them. On the one hand, the American Republic was founded with lofty words in the Declaration of Independence that we are all “created equal … endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness….”

On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote those words, was a slave owner who took a female slave (Sally Hemmings) as his concubine. George Washington was a slave owner; 1960s Black Panther activist Bobby Seale said “he was not the father of my country.”

The preamble of our Constitution proclaims “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

But Article 1, Section 9, written in 1787, protected the international slave trade by declaring it could not be prohibited for 20 years until 1808. Article 1, Section 2 providing for Congressional representation, excluded “Indians not taxed” and counted “three fifths of all other Persons” (i.e., African slaves), leading many African-Americans to conclude that each of them was considered only 3/5 of a human being.

The first shipload of African slaves reached colonial Virginia in 1619, the year before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth in 1620. That history is documented by “Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America” by Lerone Bennet Jr. One former American slave summarized 250 years of slavery in a single sentence: “They did everything except eat us.” Slavery was followed by a century of systematic legal discrimination and segregation, enforced by lynching, known as “Jim Crow.”

We white folks, descendants of European immigrants whose “blood, sweat, toil and tears” helped make the American Republic a bastion of freedom and opportunity (at least for us), must face the fact that it also was built upon the twin foundations of Native American genocide and African slavery. 

Peeling away layers of the bigotry onion is a task that confronts each of us daily. All we can do is keep trying (in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 civil rights March on Washington) to evaluate people solely, “by the content of their character.”

The Chinese sage Lao Tzu wrote “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” As the Rev. Jesse Jackson said of a white person, “His foreparents came to American on immigrant ships; my foreparents came to America on slave ships. But whatever the original ships, we’re in the same boat tonight.”

Michael Pill is a partner in the Northampton law firm of Green Miles Lipton, LLP.

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