The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

One More Time: Everything is NOT Slavery

Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t occur to me to respond to the madness of Michelle Bachman. There’s a point at which merely legitimizes mindless rantings like hers, and dignifies them are more than they deserve. However, there is a point at which those unhinged ravings must be addressed: the point at which they insult the memories of — as well as the present realities of countless people.

Ms. Bachmann’s latest is one such case in point:

Yesterday, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) delivered a “speech filled with urgent and violent rhetoric” at a gathering sponsored by the Independence Institute in Denver. During what was originally billed as a “personal legislative briefing,” Bachmann “got downright biblical” when describing her unwavering opposition to health care reform:

This [health care reform] cannot pass…What we have to do today is make a covenant, to slit our wrists, be blood brothers on this thing. This will not pass. We will do whatever it takes to make sure this doesn’t pass…Right now, we are looking at reaching down the throat and ripping the guts out of freedom. And we may never be able to restore it if we don’t man up and take this one on.”

According to the Colorado Independent, Bachmann also claimed that many Americans pay more than half their income in taxes, adding “it’s nothing more than slavery.” She affirmed that “you’re either for us or against us on this issue” and bragged about being the country’s “second-most hated Republican woman.” Rather than spending quality time in her home district during August recess, some speculate that Bachmann’s trip signals her “branching out” and sowing some “rich, right-wing Western soil” in preparation for a future national run.

I’ve said it before, but it obviously bears repeating: Everything is NOT Slavery.

After months of hearing everything from national service programs, to the stimulus, and even health care reform to slavery, somebody finally said it. That somebody being brooklynbadboy at DailyKos.

Got it? SLAVERY is like SLAVERY. It means someone OWNS YOU. It means if you are a female slave, your owner can take away your children and sell them, forbid to speak your native tongue, or even rename you to indicate whose property you are, among other horrors.

THAT is what Slavery is. Do not compare it to going without health insurance. Do not compare it with not being able to get married. Do not compare American Slavery with anything other than real people who are currently enslaved. Black people find it offensive to our ancestors.

I speak as someone who has traced his lineage back to at least one slave ancestor.

By then, I was in the middle of my career as a college student. I was no longer eight years old. I’d seen Roots. I’d read the book too. At my dad’s suggestion, I also read Jubilee, Margaret Walker’s fictional account of her grandmother’s stories of her mother, Vyry, a slave. That slavery was a part of American history, as well as my own personal history was no longer abstract. Growing up African American in the south made that pretty clear. (EDITOR’S NOTE: It was made even more real by the knowledge that Walker’s book is set in my parents’ hometown – which was home for many generations of our family, and still is to some.)

Up to that point, even though I’d yet to identify a slave ancestor, the whole subject became personal for me. I’d seen enough pictures like this one and read enough accounts of how wounds like this were inflicted that they were real enough to me, even if I’d never felt the sting of the whip or known for sure an ancestor of mine had. It was no longer entertaining to me to hear Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara quip to Prissy ” I’ll sell you South I will, I swear I will! I’ll sell you South!” or threaten “I’ll whip the hide off you!” Because I knew that, in those times, it was not an idle threat. Seeing Gone with the Wind again after reading Jubilee, I realized that there a whole other drama that wasn’t portrayed on camera.

…I can’t speak for what its like to come to grips with the reality of “having owned,” or with your ancestors having owned. But I remembered, when I read about Sharpton’s discovery, my own experience as I sat in the basement of the University of Georgia Library, looking at the microfiche display and the name on the slave schedule that took me back as far into my own history as I’d ever gone. And confirming a connection to history I’d only assumed existed before.

… Stripped of the anonymity of history, the slave masters of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s ancestors now have entered his life, reminding him of their existence even when he signs his name.

“So now, you have to, every time you write your name, think about the only reason you have that name is somebody owned your forefathers,” Sharpton said Monday on CNN.

Sharpton has joined a small subset of African Americans who know the identity of a slave ancestor and the identity of that person’s owner. Such knowledge is relatively rare (though genealogists say it need not be) and it runs counter to the traditional reticence with which African Americans have treated slavery. Yes, the broad narrative is known: that during roughly 250 years of slavery, a new people was born from the blending of Africa and America. But often, little more than that is clear, but for family legends and oral traditions.

I wasn’t intending to find Henry Heath, when I set out to track down some family legends, but once I started, the road led at least as far back as him. I didn’t know anything more about Henry Heath than his name, that he was another man’s property from birth until he was freed after the civil war, and that after he was freed he kept the name of the man who had owned him. I know that much, because I still have that name. Only now I know where it came from.

Again, to Ms. Bachman and others, nothing you are comparing to slavery looks anything like it. Slavery looked more like this.

And this.

It looks nothing like this.

4 – Lie Here Michele Bachmann runs with the all too familiar “poor rich people” argument that conservatives just love. She makes the interesting claim that under our current system there are some poor rich people who have to pay half of their income in taxes. This is quite an interesting claim given that the income tax rate for the highest tax bracket hasn’t been 50% since Reagan. Right now it is actually at one of it’s lowest points in history, 35% (for some context, during some of the most prosperous years in American history, the post-war era of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, the tax rate for the highest income bracket was between 70-90% or so).

For a little more context, let’s look at Warren Buffet, the world’s second richest person after Bill Gates. How much does this insanely wealthy man pay in taxes? Well let’s ask him:

Mr Buffett said that he was taxed at 17.7 per cent on the $46 million he made last year, without trying to avoid paying higher taxes, while his secretary, who earned $60,000, was taxed at 30 per cent.

If that isn’t slavery, I don’t know what is. Poor Warren Buffet has to pay 17.7% in taxes, and he doesn’t even need to seek out loopholes to do it (if he actually tried he could undoubtedly pay even less in taxes, or maybe if he was lucky he could pay zero income taxes like 2/3 of American corporations). Of course Buffet is a rarity–he is one of the few who are able to put considerations of the greater good above greed. Buffet has famously rallied against our current tax system because it makes him pay too little!:

“The 400 of us [here] pay a lower part of our income in taxes than our receptionists do, or our cleaning ladies, for that matter. If you’re in the luckiest 1 per cent of humanity, you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99 per cent.”

It should be no surprise to you here to find that Michele Bachmann is lying to you, yet again.

Merely being dishonest is bad enough, but to belittle and insult the very real history of suffering and injustice inherent in slavery and its role in this country’s history is unconscionable. And, no, none of us alive today have owned slaves or been owned as slaves, but that’s not the point.

As is so often pointed out when the subject is raised, none of us today have owned or been owned, and the owned and the owners are no longer with us. But they’ve left us a a history that’s impossible to avoid, as we’re inextricably bound up in it. And as difficult as it is, it may just be that either we have to find a way to live with each and own our history together, or we’ll just continue to be owned by it.

The point is that slavery is not merely history because — as then candidate Obama himself acknowledged — so many of us are still living with the consequences of that history.

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From lynching to slavery, conservatives seem more than willing to alienate people of color — who’ve had the right to vote for a few decades now — despite the likely political consequences for them.

If Republicans buy this “who cares” reasoning, they’re doomed to defeat.

Nationally, the percentage of the electorate that is white has fallen by 15 percentage points since 1980. Conversely, the Hispanic portion keeps growing.

And in some states, Hispanics are also shifting allegiances. Take Florida, the swing state with the most electoral votes. In 2004, George W. Bush won Florida by 5 percentage points. In November, John McCain lost it by nearly 3 percentage points, but they both got about the same percentage of the white vote.

That’s in large part because most of the state’s Hispanic voters swung Democratic. According to an October 2008 report by the Pew Hispanic Center, last year the number of Florida Hispanics who were registered Democrats outnumbered those registered Republican by 13 percent. As recently as 2006, those registered Republican outnumbered those registered Democrat by 11 percent. No wonder then that Barack Obama won 57 percent of the Hispanic vote there. The future could see even more of an impact. The same study said that from 2006 to 2008, the percentage increase in the number of Hispanics registered to vote in Florida outpaced the increase among non-Hispanics 18 percent to 6 percent.

It’s going to take more than fried chicken and potato salad, or arroz con pollo, for the Republican Party to address this problem.

Conservatives would do better to spend even less time appropriating slavery than the time they’ve spent defending slavery.

But that would require more honesty than they’re currently capable of, or even willing to try.

Health care reform isn’t “slavery.” Not only that, but a system in which our out-of-pocket costs have gone up 34% in three years, where the uninsured face an avalanche of costs, where the rest of us shell out an extra $1,000 a year to pay for the uninsured, where health care costs may hit $2.5 trillion this year (about $8,000 per person), all while we’re spending $2.3 trillion and still not getting what we pay for isn’t exactly what I’d call ideal. Nor would any other sane person.

Note to conservatives: Wanna be taken seriously? Stop screaming words like “socialism” and “slavery” and maybe start offering actual solutions.

If the Bachmanns, Palins, Grassleys and Enzis of their movement continue to be their loudest spokespersons on health care reform, Americans can only assume that conservatives aren’t interested in real reform, and don’t care any more about the consequences for every day Americans if health reform fails than they do the political consequences of their not-so-subtle-but-oh-so-cynical employment of race and racial history for their own party.


  1. This was a compellingly written analysis of an issue that ought to sadden and shame us all. The problem continues to be, in my mind at least, that there are no political consequences from the right for our so called leaders who court the lunatic fringe of their party and in so doing expand and by proxy legitimize that fringe. The progressive media who are shouting about this intellectual dishonesty and down right lies only have voice inside of the relative echo chamber of their respective outlets.

  2. A friend of mine shared this note on facebook yesterday and your words made a deep impression and made me think about things from a different perspective (always a good thing). As a result I ended up rewriting several passages in an essay I was working on for my own blog.

    Your words made a difference in at least one mind: mine.