Some time ago, a relative forged another family member’s will, causing a cousin, the rightful heir, to lose all. I did everything I could to right the wrong. Eventually, the crime was exposed and my cousin was able to come into his rightful inheritance. Even so, I never talked to the perpetrator again. Years later, I felt the offense as if it occurred yesterday.
One morning while having breakfast with my daughter, I asked for her opinion: How might I let go of this old grudge? With teenage insight, she said, “Don’t dwell on it. Move on. That'll do it.” I took note and forgave my relative in that moment. The resentment dissipated.
Around that time, I wanted to hang a portrait of General George Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. I am a second cousin of the first president, seven times removed, and I am African-American. The image inspired me.
My daughter, however, erupted in outrage. All she could see was a slaveholder.
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“He won the American Revolution,” I said.
“I don’t care,” my daughter replied.
“He was the greatest president ever,” I rejoined.
“I’m only related to Washington because he raped someone,” she said.
I flatly said there was no evidence whatsoever Washington had laid a violent hand on any of our slave ancestors.
Nuance and complexity eluded my daughter. Washington might grace our currency, adorn the National Mall and hang on the walls of the White House, but, no, not the wall of our home. In this matter, slaveholding alone mattered to my intelligent daughter.
The greatest threat to a healthy black culture and consciousness today is an inability to see beyond slaveholding.
When we carry resentments in our hearts over generations, these resentments hurt us. Dwelling on slaveholding creates a desire to get back at others, to lash out. One feels entitled to destroy institutions due to the original sin of slavery.
If one wants to see unresolved pain acting out, look no further than reparations rhetoric and Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of “Between the World and Me” and scribe of racial doom and gloom. Only unresolved pain can explain an unyielding focus on white supremacy. Passing along resentments to children, as Coates has done in his writings, scars the young. The resulting scars compel the impressionable to despise our country, our shared bond as countrymen. The pain flows from slavery and continues into infinity.
Slavery was far worse than anyone living can imagine. And that’s the problem. We know slavery as a Hollywood production — “Roots,” “Twelve Years a Slave,” “Django Unchained.” Even the National Museum of African American History, while important, doesn’t do slavery due justice. Every American should read “American Slavery As It Is” by Theodore Weld. From cover to cover. Don’t stop as you tremble. Once you close this book on slavery, you will feel bad for several days. I did. That is healthy. And when you come out the other side, you will feel peace, even thanksgiving that our country fought a war to end slaveholding. Thoughts of slavery will lose power over you.
Our task today is to live free of these atrocities in our minds. We shouldn’t forget the past. We should let go of old grudges from slavery. We simply move on as Americans and feel compassion for one another across the color line.
Our ancestors would want us to move on and live our lives to the fullest today. We dishonor our ancestors if we bring trials and tribulations from their times into our times. We disrespect our ancestors with limited and negative thinking, while living in the greatest country ever.
I give thanks every day that, on one snowy day in 1777, General Washington prayed at Valley Forge. And that prayer gave Washington faith to carry on.
I can see beyond slaveholding.
W. F. Twyman Jr. is a former law professor.