JUL 21, 2023
I remember learning in school that the invention of the cotton gin sparked the Industrial Revolution in the United States.
Ibram X. Kendi says more. He writes that after the cotton gin, cotton quickly grew to exceed all other American exports in dollar value. It helped to establish the American banking system, gave rise to new financial instruments and put the northern factory system on the world map.
But all of this was not just because of the cotton gin. It was the cotton gin plus enslavement. It was the ability of enslavers to increase the number of people enslaved through family separation, rape and kidnapping. It was the ability to transport a million enslaved people to cotton-growing states or territories and then insuring their productivity by means of calculated, tested and systematic torture.
The details of enslavement and the white wealth it created was not mentioned in the history classes I took. Why? An omission so significant is not an accident. There are reasons. Coming to terms with those reasons will help us understand the challenge of anti-racism.
White America has treated the enslavement of black persons as a secret that it does not want to know about. Perhaps the white rage over the teaching of black history is fear about what will happen once we stop keeping the secret: What will our knowledge require of us? What will we feel? Can’t we just continue to ignore it?
We can’t of course. Enslavement is not just a thing that happened 200 years ago. It built a nation and an economy. It morphed for generations after the Civil War. In white supremacy, the racist ideology that justified it lives on.
In this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable that seems to say we don’t have to worry about the weeds (evil) because we might accidentally rip out some wheat (the good) along with the weeds. I’m not sure how much Jesus knew about farming. I suspect that if you wait until harvest time to deal with the weeds, there won’t be any wheat left to gather up. I think it’s better that we learn to see the weeds and do what we can to pull them out whenever and wherever we can. Especially the weeds that have taken root because of the legacy of enslavement and the racist ideology that protected it. We can start by refusing to keep the secret.
 See also The Half Has Never Been Told, Edward E. Baptist, (Basic Books 2014) at 116-144.