The Limits of Black Forgiveness

The Limits of Black Forgiveness

Since May 25th, when we lost George Floyd, a whole lot of white folk have been apologizing and asking for forgiveness for the systemic racial injustice that has existed for at least four hundred years. I know a few white allies well.  I know they sincerely grieve with us and are genuinely humble when asking forgiveness and expressing repentance. I know as best they can from their position in American society, they get it. I also know they are not representative of most white Americans through our long, tortured history.  I am fairly certain they are not representative of a large segment, if not the majority, of white Americans today. Regardless of what proportion of white folk they represent, sincere apology, while important, is not sufficient.

African Americans, since well before the Civil War, have echoed the sentiments expressed by Martin Delany: “I forgive those misguided, deluded brethren with all my heart.”[1] Public forgiveness flowed from both Christianity’s influence and tactical pragmatism. But most African Americans also knew that apologies, repentance and forgiveness would never be enough to move white society to make substantive changes. It was not enough then and it will not be enough now.

A friend of mine worked twenty-five years as a state trooper. He recently retired in part because enduring twenty-five years as one of few black state troopers in Pennsylvania trying to work for change “from within” proved too much (nonetheless I still say do not hate the police because, hey, I have a police friend.) As someone who has seen a lot of wrong from all sides, he likes to remind people that a real apology connotes restitution; it implies you are going to do something to make the wrong right.

African Americans have historically tried to push white Americans beyond apology and their public statements about making what has been wrong at least a little bit better. We have not had much lasting success. Even in the rare instances when black leaders had a little more political power than their white counterparts, tangible rectification was limited or short-lived. The subverted radical potential of South Carolina’s 1868 Constitutional Convention is just one example. On the second day, white Convention president Albert Mackey’s first specific statement of policy erected the first wall on the foundation of white supremacy that was centuries deep when he declared: “I am opposed to all confiscations of property, because the confiscation of all the lands of rebel owners in the State can have no effect in promoting the welfare of the state.” He was likely familiar with Thaddeus Stevens’ March 1867 HR 29 bill calling for the confiscation and redistribution of the land of wealthier slaveholders. Although Mackey’s racism differed from President Andrew Johnson’s virulent racism in significant ways, he also paralleled Johnson in some respects.  He was likely familiar with Johnson’s response to Congress, just a month before Mackey addressed the Convention, that “already the negroes are influenced by promises of confiscation and plunder.” [2] On the convention’s fourth day, Governor James Orr’s blatantly racist speech included a recommendation that the financial well-being of formerly wealthy white slaveowners be secured by the majority-black, all male delegates recusing their debt and protecting their land. Francis Cardozo and many of the black delegates—though not all—pushed for more far-reaching changes. They tried to deliver, but ultimately were thwarted, what black women and men working in the fields wanted: land as restitution for generations of their labor that made that land rich. These were the workers who “answered with a flat refusal to make any contract at all” with former slaveholders and expected the governments of South Carolina and the United States to distribute land to their families.[3]This was the best kind of revenge.

Cardozo knew in 1868 what Kiese Laymon understood in 1992 as a seventeen-year old. After the Los Angeles uprising in the wake of the acquittal of the thugs who beat Rodney King, Laymon “knew there was no way to not lose unless we took back every bit of what had been stolen from us. I wanted all the money, the safety, the education, the healthy choices, and the second chances they stole. If we were to ever get back what we were owed, I knew we had to take it all back without getting caught.”[4] They both knew people needed more in order to do more than just survive. Black power and black voices enable some of us to survive. But like Laymon goes on to say, “I never understood how surviving was our collective superpower when white folk made sure so many of us didn’t survive. And those of us who did survive practiced bending so much that breaking seemed inevitable.” Black power and black voices matter. But that wasn’t enough to do more than keep bending in 1868, 1992, and that won’t be enough in 2020.[5]

A brief segue: when I interviewed for the job I still have, I was asked how I felt about being jointly appointed in History and African American Studies (now Africana Studies). I recognized (or thought I did) the potential problems of a joint appointment; however, I said something like “I want that—because I’m strongly attracted to how African American Studies, as a field, makes very clear that they have an explicit social agenda.” This is a field committed to being useful, in tangible ways, to making a positive difference politically, economically, culturally and legally in the lives of people of African descent. We do not pretend to have some kind of scholarly, academic distance. We are committed to work thoroughly grounded in rigorous research and the highest standards of peer-review while simultaneously being personally, emotionally, intellectually and publicly committed to Black advocacy and activism. We can, of course, always do this better. But that is the noble dream for this field.

Is it for the discipline of History? Danez Smith says “history is what it is. It knows what it did.”[6] In my estimation, our discipline has yet to be explicitly, publicly, prominently anti-racist. But we can be. As Walter Benjamin wrote, “Only the historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”[7]

The enemy has been and still is white supremacy. The breaking that Laymon thought inevitable may not be—black people might be able to bend for another four hundred years. If academia is genuinely committed to not living off those bent backs, we—as in everybody—need every historical journal and every history department, which have a significant number of white editors, chairs and senior scholars, to articulate clear and prominently visible social, political, economic and legal agendas to end the enemy’s protection and maintenance of whiteness within and without the academy. And this means more than issuing an apology or a statement opposed to racism.  It means developing an agenda: an articulation of how this discipline, in whatever organization it’s manifested, is doing the anti-racist work to end white supremacy. I am ashamed that I have not done this yet as the (we think) first African American to chair a department in Gettysburg College’s 188-year history. But I will be pushing it this week. We need History to completely lose the pretense of that noble dream of an objective, dispassionate distance. We can be rigorous, thorough scholars who check and challenge the strengths of one another’s work while still clearly being activists in and out of the classroom. We can do this without bullying students into our own points of view. We can do this and still treat with dignity anyone who disagrees while systematically dismantling unfounded, misleading positions that simply prop up the white supremacy Mackey, Johnson, Orr and thousands of others have continued to so vociferously protect. We do this on the written page, on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, and in committee meetings and on the streets. We do this pointedly, unapologetically and right now.

[1] Frederick Douglass’s Paper,  November 17 1848, 2.

[2] Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of South Carolina v. 1 (New York: Arno Press, 1968), 17. For Steven’s bill, see “H.R. 29 Relative to Damages Done to Loyal Men, and for other Purposes,” Congressional Globe, 40th Congress, 1st Session, 203 (March 19, 1867). For Johnson’s address, see Journal of the House of Representatives, 40th Congress, 2d Session (December 3, 1867), 19.

[3] Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of South Carolina, 111-112.

[4] Kiese Laymon, Heavy: An American Memoir (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018), 107.

[5] Laymon, Heavy, 107.

[6] Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), “summer, somewhere”, Kindle

[7] Walter Benjamin quoted in Charlotte Odilla Bohn, “Historiography and Remembrance: On Walter Benjamin’s Concept of Eingedenken” Religions 10, no. 1: 40 (January 2019)


Scott Hancock

Scott Hancock, associate professor of History and Africana Studies, came to Gettysburg College in 2001. He received his B.A. from Bryan College in 1984, spent fourteen years working in group homes with teenagers at risk, and received his history PhD from the University of New Hampshire in 1999. His scholarly interests have focused on Black northerners’ engagement with the law, from small disputes to escaping via the Underground Railroad, during the Early Republic and Civil War eras. He has more recently begun exploring how whiteness has been manifested on post-Civil War memorializations of battlefields. His work has appeared in anthologies and Civil War History, and he has published essays on CityLab, Medium, and The Huffington Post. He can be contacted at or on Twitter @scotthancockOT.

7 Replies to “The Limits of Black Forgiveness”

  1. “The enemy has been and still is white supremacy.” I’m sorry professor, but that is false. The enemy is capitalism. Not once in this entire piece do you mention the profit motive inherent in slavery, which at its core, is nothing more or less than unpaid involuntary labor. If slaves were a lovely shade of violet, they’d still be slaves. This profit motive reached every corner of America. No cotton mill spinning negro cloth in Rhode Island cared its raw material did not include the cost of “black” labor, it only cared the raw material included no labor cost, the color of that unpaid labor making no difference whatsoever. You, and those like you, fall into capital’s trap in this way every time, descending into endless counting up of “white” this, “black” that, when the only color that matters is green.

    This is why no average American can tell the difference between a Confederate memorial statue and a Union one such that even the 54th Massachusetts monument has been defaced in the George Floyd protests. No wonder no American knows who was right and who was wrong in the Civil War. All of Civil War academia is one giant “both sides” funereal dirge about America’s “original sin”, brother versus brother over a dying notion of “white supremacy” which we just need to talk more about to make right. Might I suggest on your new jihad you begin with Marx’s October 1861 article in Die Presse. Whether you do so “pointedly, unapologetically, right now” is up to you. You ain’t dismantling bubkus, jack, until you do.

    1. Great comment except for the fact that slaves were not a lovely shade of violet. They were blacks. The article also never mentioned that blacks and white served as slaves together. I do agree that capitalism was indeed a part of the overall motive but the quest to fill that desire with blacks is certainly why THEY were enslaved in the first place. Their selection of the poor was indeed capitalistic, however, to do by dominance, power, and control by stealing, humiliating, raping, and killing a particular “non-lovely violent” group of people was absolutely racism. I do not think it’s either/or, but and/both. Lastly, involuntary labor is really a laughable conclusion of the totality of slavery and its true meaning. Racism and white supremacy have always been the root of both past and current slavery. It is what makes capitalism wrong, at the expense of the lives of another race. Classism (supremacy) is the evil behind them all.

  2. Scott, thank you for this essay. I’ve been thinking about my children’s school district and how history is taught to our K-12 students–and also how that can and should change. Somehow it feels like now is the time to advocate for those changes on a state-wide level.

    And to Tim Russo, I don’t know you or what you’re studying, but I’ve heard that argument forever. I finished grad school in the early 90s! At this moment, we are living inside a capitalist society and we need to center the thing that I think is hardest: Racism and tackling white supremacy. Maybe centering different voices might bring about real intersectional work.

    1. The problem with your approach Jen, of course, is you can’t tell me or anyone how to solve the problems stemming from racism and white supremacy. Conversely, anyone can tell you how to solve the problems stemming from capitalism (which include racism and white supremacy). This is why you want to “center” the insoluble problems which stem from a solvable one. You don’t want to solve the problem, you just want to live off the insolubility of the problems symptoms. No one is fooled anymore. You may not know me or what I’m studying, but the rest of us sure as hell know you and what you’re propping up.

    2. Jen, I’d agree that this is an opportune time to encourage rethinking how & what is taught so that antiracist understanding and action becomes part of the educational DNA over the long term.

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