Columbia University classroom
An ethics professor, Dr. James wilson, who is Black, Is
lecturing to students about
the War Between the States.
Professor Wilson asks,
“Could the Civil War have been avoided?”
After a brief pause, the Professor says,
“The causes of the Civil War were very complex. In any number
of ways the Civil War could have been avoided.”
“It was a complex set of circumstances in which people
distrusted others who were perceived to be unlike themselves. Fear led to
hatred and violence.”
Interested students look like this is the first time that
they have heard that the causes of the Civil War were so complex.
JEROME PINERO is A HANDSOME AND ATHLETIC-LOOKING
AFRO-AMERICAN STUDENT WITH A SKIN TONE THAT SUGGESTS SOME CAUCASIAN ANCESTRY IN
HIS BLOOD LINE.
Jerome's Blackberry is sitting on his desk where he can see
it. A text message arrives. He glances down to read it,
"Is it really that complicated? That's not what most of my
Southern relatives have made me believe. They are still fighting the war in
their heads for the right to be racist. J"
jay thompson is a white male friend of jerome's, who grew
up in montgomery, alabama. he plays basketball with jerome a couple times a
week. he is slim and very athletic. they talk often and text each other a lot.
they are roommates.
Jerome texts back to J and the camera shows his G Phone,
"I am reserving judgment but I think it was simply racism
that caused an unavoidable war."
The Professor continues,
“The issue was not only slavery or no slavery. The issue was
economic advantage. Both North and South were motivated by greed. The North
exploited the South, buying cheap raw goods and paying low rates for
manufactured products. The South exploited Black people through slavery. This
raises the question of why the war was fought. It was fought not just by the
North to end slavery but by both to preserve their own privileges secured by
economic exploitation of others. The North did not want to lose the economic
benefits of the South by secession. The South did not want to continue being
exploited by the North or see an end to its economic system supported by
slavery. New territory was being opened to the West, and both North and South
wanted control over resources and political power in the West. North and South
both perceived the other culture as foreign and a threat to their own economy
and way of life."
Jay's G Phone shows a text from Jerome,
"Now it is getting deep in here. This sounds like BS to me."
The Professor continues,
"Rhetoric about the enemy by their own people drove them to
distrust and despise the other side. Paranoia led to hatred. Negotiation and
compromise could have resolved many of the issues if fear and irrational
beliefs about the other culture had not been so prevalent and heated. In 1852,
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published. Described by Lincoln
as ‘the book that made this great war,’ Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an anti-slavery
novel that portrayed the brutality of slavery. The novel touched off a powder
keg among and against abolitionists. That was not the only issue dividing North
and South, but it became the excuse that both sides used for going to war. It
was the Iraqi ‘weapons of mass destruction’ excuse for a war that could have
been avoided. There was slavery in the South, but there were many other reasons
why both sides went to war."
Jerome squirms uncomfortably in his seat. He has been
making negative and angry faces as the Professor has been talking, so
the Professor knows that he has a strong opinion on the matter.
After a long pause the Professor gives Jerome a chance to
express his opinion,
“So what do you think? Is this what you have thought about
the Civil War? Mr. Pinero, have you been phoning a friend for a lifeline on
your Blackberry? Would you like to take a shot at the Million?”
classroom is composed of twenty White students and ten Black students. Jerome
is animated in his response,
“Yes, I have been phoning a friend on the subject. It was a
just war to end slavery. The cause of the war was
slavery. Racist Southern White slave owners were to blame for the Civil War.
Jay's and my ancestors come from different sides in the War and we both agree
that it was simply about racism and ending slavery. What is so complicated
Professor Wilson replies,
“You seem angry. I understand anger about slavery. My
ancestors were slaves. I am angry that slavery happened. However, I am also
angry that some of my ancestors and 600,000 people died in that war – a war
that could have been avoided even while ending slavery by other means. Slavery
was about to die a natural death anyway. Only large plantation owners could
afford to buy slaves. Most Southern families farmed their own plots without
slaves. Economic conditions were likely to end slavery without all the
bloodshed. War and violence are not effective tools to accomplish social
and fear caused that war. Further hatred and injustice resulted from that war.
We are still feeling the repercussions of the War Between the States. If the
war had not happened, the country might have recovered much sooner. Nonviolent
resistance to slavery might have brought an end to that heinous practice
without all the bloodshed and longterm negative consequences.”
“I just think that racist Southern Whites were to blame for
all that bloodshed. If they did the right thing and ended slavery, the war
could have been avoided.”
Shaking his head with some understanding, Professor Wilson
“I see your point, but there was plenty of blame to go
around. If we identify one group, like Southern White folks or slaveholders as
the ones to blame, we miss the big picture of how so many others cooperated and
collaborated in producing the injustices. Ancient Israel had a ritual of
sending a sacrificial goat into the wilderness to carry away and die for the
sins of the people. By laying all the blame on this one sacrificial goat,
everyone else was let off the hook. That is what we are doing when we blame one
person and do not see all the others who helped to cause the injustice. It
would be like blaming Hitler alone for the evils of Nazism, while holding no
one else responsible. Many tried to do that by saying that they were simply
taking orders and that it was their duty to take orders."
"OK, I see where you are going with this. Tell me more about
who else was responsible for slavery in America."
Professor Wilson answers,
"Racial attitudes in the North were not so great either. Even
some Northern states abolished slavery, runaway slaves from the South were
returned by many Northerners for the bounty money. Even though slavery was
abolished north of the
Mason-Dixon line and west of the Ohio River, freed slaves and Black folks were
received by White folks in the North either. Are you looking for someone to
blame back then for the
racial injustices of today? If so, I understand that motivation. However, there
are many other defendants that should be on trial in this case.”
Nodding his agreement, Jerome says,
“Frankly, yes. I am angry about racism that I have
experienced. It helps me to focus that anger on someone back then so that I
don’t take it out on every White person today. However, I did not realize how
there were many other invested interests that sustained slavery for so long.”
Smiling with understanding, Professor Wilson asks,
“Do you know much about your ancestors? Do you know their
history? You may find some answers to the complexity of the situation by
digging up your family history.”
“I know my parents and their history, but
not any further back than that.”
Professor Wilson suggests,
“Perhaps you could research your personal ancestry and their
You could write your senior thesis next year on your findings. Maybe you could
analyze some of the issues of blame for injustice in their time that led to
"OK, I could use some more help on where to go with this."
Professor Wilson suggests,
"Perhaps you could wrestle with the issues of
whether a search for simple blame of one person or group unfairly distorts
historical analysis. Abstract
historical analysis tends to be simple and clear. The cause of things that
happened is identified by the historian and blame is assigned by the ethicist.
Guilty parties are brought to
justice by the historian and the ethicist. On the other hand, real lives tend
to be more
ambiguous. People are often a combination of heroism and cowardice. They are
both altruistic and self-serving. They deserve both blame for some actions and
credit for others. Even their worst actions, however, are often understandable
in light of their circumstances. Their actions may be no less reprehensible,
but careful analysis may reveal them to be as vulnerable and frail as we
are today. Rather than appearing to be demonic villains, they may be
understood more empathetically as just as weak and powerless as we are before
forces greater than our individual selves. Maybe your family history could tell
about those issues. When you understand the complexities of past atrocities and
injustices, you develop better skills of political and social analysis that can
help you to understand and right wrongs today. When you see how hard it is to
change a system of injustice and not just one person doing wrong, then you are
dealing with stubborn reality. By seeing how stubborn a system of injustice can
become, you understand how little fixes for individual crimes is not nearly
enough to change the system.”
Nodding in agreement, Jerome replies,
“That sounds interesting. Maybe I will look into my family
history more closely. I have always been curious about what I don't know
The bell rings and students begin filing out of the room.
julie andersen, a pretty White blonde woman in the class
has been sitting two rows to the left of jerome. she has been watching him with
Julie walks out of the room next to Jerome. Smiling and
flirting a bit, she says,
“Not many students stand up to Professor Wilson. That was
Jerome smiles back and replies,
“I guess I tend to see things in simple terms when they are
more complex than that in reality. I suppose that most racism also results from
simplistic thinking. Do you have time for coffee? I’ll buy.”
Julie smiles and agrees,
“Sure, that would be great.”
They walk out of the building and across the street to a coffee shop where they pick up coffee. Then they walk to a bench in Riverside Park at 116th Street and Riverside Drive.
They talk along the way out of reach of hearing.
(Music sets a mood for admiring the beauty of the park.)
a bench in riverside park
As they sit down on the bench, Julie asks,
“Did your parents have a hard life?”
Pausing to consider the question, Jerome answers,
“Yes, my Dad grew up in Harlem in the Projects. His brother
died in a gang war. He never knew his father. My mother had a habit of taking
in wounded animals, and he was one of them. When I was ten, he died of a heart
attack that may have been induced by cocaine. He had several jobs that he lost
over drug use, including driving a bus. My mother was a nurse at St. Luke’s
Hospital until she had a stroke two years ago. She has not been able to work
since the stroke. Her parents, my grandparents, took her in to care for her.”
“Do they live in Manhattan?”
“They retired to New Harbor, Maine and live there now. My
grandfather was a Math Professor here at Columbia. OK, that’s enough of my
history. Tell me some of yours.”
Without hesitation, Julie answers,
“I grew up in eastern Ohio. My father's ancestors came from
Sweden a couple hundred years ago and settled in the hills of Eastern Ohio that
reminded them of their home in Sweden. My mother's ancestors arrived about the
same time. They were farmers in Sweden and here. In 1800 many Europeans dreamed
of having their own land to farm instead of working for someone else. The
American dream was fulfilled for them, but farming was never too kind to those
who farmed the land in the 70's. My grandparents lost the dairy farm when
corporations forced them out and they owed more than their equity. The bank
took their farm and sold it at an auction as my grandparents stood and cried. I
to get away from small town provincialism and go to school here in the Big
Apple. My parents worked many
blue-collar jobs and could not afford more than a community college for me.
However, I got into Columbia on a
scholarship to play soccer. I don’t know what I will do after I finish college.
I may go
back to Ohio after graduation and work in business, I suppose. However, I have
considered being an English-to-Spanish translator here in New York. I just
don't know yet. Since a couple of my relatives are married to Black men, I have
of my family as Black AND White. I have been fascinated with ethical issues
surrounding race and economics as long as I can remember. Well that’s some of
story. How will you find out more about your ancestors for your
“My mom’s parents are my only source of information. I guess
I will call them to see if they have anything for me. I have always been
curious about my light complexion and my grandfather’s. I assumed that he must
have some White ancestor, but I never had the nerve to ask him directly. I was
always afraid that there would be some secret or story that was embarrassing. I
think that he would have told me already if it were a positive story. Maybe I
will ask my mom first.”
"The Knicks are playing the Celtics on Friday. I have two
tickets courtside. I don't suppose that you would want to go?"
Jerome's eyes light up and he gushes,
"You must be kidding - courtside? How did you pull that off?"
"My roommate's Dad is one rich dude. He is out of the country
and she can't use his tickets so she offered them to me for free."
"You are my new best friend!"
"I didn't know that you could be bought so easily."
"It's just that you found my price so easily."
They continue to chat and sip at their coffee as the camera
madison square garden
The Knicks and Celtics play hard and fast for a few minutes.
Jerome and Julie lean into each other and share a hot dog and drink. They cheer
enthusiastically and laugh without talking.
in the steam room at Columbia university
Jerome talks with Jay as they sit alone in the steam room,
"Julie does not know about my son yet. She is not talking to
me, so she may never know."
"Do you think that she wants to be back with you?"
"Yes, Alyssa told me that she has opened the door for my
return and really wants me back as long as I crawl back. I am ready to crawl
back. I have been miserable without her."
"So, what are you going to do and when?"
"I can't keep communicating with her through Alyssa. That
worked in grade school, but I have to be more courageous. I have hesitated
because I did not want to be rejected. Now that I know that she won't throw me
out, I am looking for the opportunity. Maybe I will take the easy way and email
her or send flowers with a note."
"Flowers with a note, definitely!"
SaintSavers, Inc. © All Rights Reserved 2008
by Gary David Ritner