Louis C.K. Does the Math on Slavery

"That's two 70-year old ladies living and dying back to back."





I was recently watching the Eyes On The Prize episode where Stokely Carmichael yells "Black Power" for the first time. There's an awesome scene where they are registering voters and they come upon a really old dude, and the following exchange ensues between the dude and a reporter:

REPORTER: Sir, how long have you been waiting for this?

GENTLEMAN: Me? Long time. Long time.

REPORTER: How old are you sir?

GENTLEMAN: Me? I'm 106.

African-Americans born in the 19th century are sometimes wrong about their age, but looking at him, the dude could have easily been 100. I started doing the math and it occurred to me that the brother was likely either born a slave himself, and/or was the child of slaves. It occurred to me that civil rights workers in the South very easily could have encountered people who'd been slaves. We forget how relatively recently black people were slaves here. And we forget how long slavery lasted. We've been free almost 150 years. We were slaves for 250 years. 

When Abraham Lincoln came to Richmond, the freed slaves crowded around him, convinced he was the savior. Sherman got the same thing down South. I've often been tempted to laugh that treatment off as foolish. But that's foolish of me. If you were the member of a community who'd been enslaved for a quarter of a millenia, living in a world where change was slow, and death was constant, where science had only just began to truly make its advance, where religion was often your only means of survival, you could easily see how Lincoln, or Sherman, could be seen as saviors. They were liberators--whether they deserved to be, in Sherman's case, or asked to be, in Lincoln's to be, is irrelevant. It almost isn't about them.

Some of the first soldiers to come into Richmond and Charleston were colored troops. All the reports, especially in Richmond, say that black folks lost their minds at the sight of these former slaves marching in an organized army. In Richmond, the soldiers had to work hard not to break ranks. I am not religious. But that scene must have ecstatic and Apocalyptic. I can only imagine what I might have believed, if I'd seen it.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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