On Tuesday, January 16, 2007, a member of the Virginia state legislature said that black people should "get over" slavery. Del. Frank D. Hargrove, age 79, made his statements in the course of voicing opposition to a proposed measure that would apologize on behalf of the state to the descendants of slaves. Hargrove’s main point was that, since slavery ended nearly 140 years ago, Virginia’s black citizens should just “get over it”.
Needless to say, black lawmakers in Virginia (and elsewhere) were swift to denounce Hargrove's comments. I also denounce Hargrove's comments.
140 years is a long time, and if this measure were advocating some form of monetary reparation, I could see several reasons for voicing an objection, the main one being simple unfeasibility. It would be one thing if there existed a major corporation that, upon examination, was actually Virginia Confederated Slave Holdings d/b/a RicherThanSinCo. RicherThanSinCo. could, of course, be easily traced to a partnership between and among Virginia’s wealthiest plantation owners. This is not the case, however. Reparations would end up coming from the pockets of taxpayers. Many of these taxpayers would be the descendants of individuals who were not slaveowners or otherwise direct beneficiaries of the slave system. For others, at what point do the sins of the father no longer apply?
By that same token, there was a time, a generation or two removed from slavery, when determining just how much might have been owed to whom and by whom could, at least in theory, have been a viable option. With the passage of time, and as more time continues to pass, this is just not going to happen.
The issue of monetary reparations, whatever its original merits, has, unfortunately, become a boogeyman that pundits and politicians alike trot out to frighten members of the public who don’t understand that it’s an idea with little to no hope of ever becoming a reality.
An apology, though, is an entirely different story. An apology constitutes an important symbolic gesture. An apology represents more than just an explicit recognition of the inhumanity and barbarity of the system of chattel slavery that existed in the antebellum South. An apology is also an implicit recognition of the racial inequities that continued long after slavery ended. It is a recognition of the damaging legacy of racial violence and Jim Crow. In short, an apology would cost Virginia nothing, but its value would be immeasurable.
Blacks don’t need to “just get over” slavery. Legislators like Frank Hargrove just need to “get it”.