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A walk to heal the rage over slavery

At some point in history, a man for the first time took a piece of iron and fashioned it into a sort of bracelet. And either he or his imitators converted that bracelet into a shackle.

Some slavery needs only mental shackles, emotional shackles, political shackles, the shackle of abuse or addiction or oppression or depression.

The iron shackle, however, speaks directly to a single despicable era in America and a particular type of slavery -- commercial slavery, the reduction of the human solely to commodity, a chattel. It is as permanent in the national psyche as a brand in the flesh. It can scar over, but it cannot go away. It has shackled this nation’s founding claims to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

Can that shackle ever be undone?

Can four dozen people walking down East Coast highways undo it? It’s laughable in a way, isn’t it, that in a world of 6 billion, there’s a little band claiming, hoping their journey “will be a step in a healing of wounds,” write the organizers, “inflicted even until today and a purification of the heart of all those connected, intimately or distantly, with this history.”

“In the U.S. and the Caribbean,” they continue, “the pilgrimage will visit sites of suffering and death such as slave auctions, slave quarters and lynchings. Prayers and offerings will be made for the spirits of those who suffered and died at these sites. We will also visit the way stations of the Underground Railroad and other sites attesting to the monumental courage and conviction of those who worked for freedom and human dignity in the face of slavery and racial oppression.”

Laughable, and yet: They stopped in Boston, and the Boston Post Gazette carried an article headlined, “New England was built on slavery,” which began, “New England gets off lightly in cinematic depictions of slavery.”

The article tells of how slavery was the very basis of the region’s commerce, its sugar, rum, molasses and shipbuilding that produced the money that created future establishment names. The Cabots, Fanueils, Waldos, the Browns of Brown University and on and on “made their fortunes in slave trading.”

The Bostonian who played a key role at a key moment in America’s own fight for freedom from Britain -- Samuel Phillips Savage, an instigator in the colonials’ decision not to pay taxes, made his fortune as an insurance man -- insuring slave ships.

Down the East Coast goes this mixed bunch of pilgrims. In the nation’s capital, The Washington Post carried the comments of one marcher, Gregory Dean Smith, of Amherst, Mass., who has been with the group since day one. “My rage is directly linked to my ancestors’ being enslaved. I could be like any of these brothers sitting around (indicating African-Americans in Southeast Washington drinking themselves into a daily stupor) poisoning myself to heal the rage.

“As we heal, I think we are sending forth a healing for America and our ancestors. I walk for the ancestors.”

Before the pilgrims left Mass-achusetts May 30 on a yearlong journey to a destiny in South Africa, the Rev. Edward Rodman, an African-American Episcopal priest, wrote, “The most difficult aspect of addressing racism and race relations in our culture has been the unwillingness of all parties to take seriously the historical roots of the American dilemma of race.

“Written into our Constitution, the fault line of race -- the Mason-Dixon line -- prefigured the Civil War, doomed Reconstruction, enshrined Jim Crow, ensured the accuracy of W.E.B. Du Bois’ prophecy that the issue of color would be the problem of the 20th century.

“Thus, as we face the next millennium,” wrote Rodman. “We see attacks on affirmative action, denial of the depths of racism in all our major institutions and the emergence of Louis Farrakhan as a significant figure in the discussion. The material progress that may have been made by a small percentage of ‘successful’ African-Americans is the exception that proves the rule.”

The pilgrims visited the house, a block from the White House, that was the local Wall Street of slavery, the slave market where area farmers, having ruined their land through overplanting, began trading slaves to the South. On went the pilgrims, to Mount Vernon, home of the nation’s slave-owning first president, to Richmond, Va., with its slave auctions, and in time, to North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi.

“We’ve had some heckling,” said pilgrim Teresa Williams, “and lots of great support from the local community groups. I’m not sure what it will be like further south,” visiting sites of lynchings and other atrocities, she said.

And then to the Caribbean before moving on to Recife, Brazil, the northern slave-descended “South” of that huge country.

And then the small band will sail the notorious Middle Passage in reverse, to the land where others also interested solely in profits had fastened the first shackles. A small delegation from the National House of Ghanian Chiefs has been visiting North America to apologize for their ancestors’ role in the heinous trafficking of people.

“This perilous [Middle Passage] trip was the most cruel and terrifying part of the triangular trade system,” wrote John Henrik Clarke in the introduction to Tom Feelings’ The Middle Passage (Dial Books).

“There is no way to compute exactly how many people perished. It has been estimated that between 30 and 60 million Africans were subjected to this horrendous system, and only a third, if that, survived.”

Thirty million to 60 million, two-thirds of whom perished. Four dozen or so people plod the road in scorching heat in the hope, however faint, that a nation will realize what shackles its people and that they will find the courage to finally embrace one another and throw the shackles off.

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998