By Michael W. Twitty
For the United States, and with it, the entire western world, this past week should have been time to reflect on a monumental anniversary: the true end of chattel slavery in the United States 150 years ago at the site of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Here, the surrender of the Confederate army occurred and my own great-great-grandfather, a 15-year-old enslaved house servant named Elijah Mitchell, was emancipated on the spot.
My own direct ancestor was present at the moment the 240-year nightmare of American slavery came to an abrupt end and he was surrounded by thousands of black troops empowered to fight and, if necessary, kill to preserve freedom on American soil. It must have been an emotionally overwhelming moment, fraught with possibility and innumerable unknowns. Elijah would go on to own land, become a pillar of his community and the patriarch of a family where everyone could read and write.
Stories like that should have been the basis of a new American dream. At any point after the American Revolution, the Civil War and other key flashpoints, the US could have forged a completely new covenant vis-a-vis black America.
We are left aching for the moment in the past when paths diverged in a wood and our nation chose complete equality over laws and policies curtailing our collective well-being. In the African American experience, this theory of history is known as “two steps forward and one step back”.
The would-be framing and murder of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina by police officer Michael Slager stands as yet another example of the brazen war on everyday people of colour, protests be damned. Pulled over for a broken tail-light and shot in the back eight times after attempting to run away – apparently to avoid arrest for unpaid child support – Scott’s death further sheds light on an unsavoury truth. His murder is not paradoxical in the shadow of emancipation’s anniversary. It fits a wider cycle of great promise followed by reversal of gains against a symptom of the seasons of race to which the African American experience has been inextricably bound. The ideal that we are on a linear path to justice, equality or freedom is not borne out.