The urge to deny ugliness and the consequent impulse to rewrite history is as enduring as man himself. These desires motivate not only individuals but entire nations and cultures. And never more than when the history in question involves unforgivable acts such as the systematic enslavement of a people or the annihilation of innocents.
The scurrilous attempts of recent years to deny that the Holocaust occurred, to deny even the existence of the Nazi death camps, are but one incredible manifestation of such historical blindness. Redemption follows only from the acknowledgment and understanding of painful truths. For that reason, we are heartened by new, if long-overdue, historical truth telling and housecleaning.
Last week, the American Historical Assn., with a 111-year history of avoiding controversy--historical and otherwise--passed a resolution condemning assertions that Jews played a major role in the black slave trade. This old canard has acquired shocking numbers of believers lately solely through insistent and open repetition, particularly by followers and publications of the Nation of Islam.
The American Historical Assn. acted because the allegations of major Jewish involvement in the slave trade “so misrepresent the historical record . . . that we believe them only to be part of a long anti-Semitic tradition that represents Jews as negative central actors in human history.”
Scholars representing the AHA noted that European Jews themselves were persecuted during much of the four centuries that the slave trade flourished. And in the American South, they said, Jews were “never more than a tiny fraction of the white population, (and) they never formed more than a minuscule proportion of slaveholders.”
In Mississippi last week, the state Senate voted unanimously to ratify the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. This historical correction is of no less import than the AHA’s declaration.
If the state House of Representatives approves the Senate action, Mississippi will become the last state in the Union to officially embrace the abolition of slavery. Though this action, 130 years after the fact, is only symbolic, that symbolism is nonetheless profound, not only for Mississippi but for African Americans who today still struggle with the cruel legacy of that inhuman subjugation.