History Lesson

Last week, I attended the first session of a seminar on Slavery and its Aftermaths. This seminar is hosted by Professors Abebe and Huq, and our group of 12 students met in Professor Huq’s home in Ukrainian Village. We were discussing a recent historical account of slavery in the United States, Inhuman Bondage by David Brion Davis.

We started the seminar by sharing what got us interested in the topic. One student mentioned that she had grown up hearing stories about slavery. People in her family had been enslaved, and those stories have carried on to her generation. She also mentioned that the version of slavery she learned in high school history class seemed sanitized compared to the stories that she heard.

Her comment got me thinking about how little connection my family has to the history of slavery in the U.S. My parents came to this country in 1986. No one in my family has any personal connection to the Atlantic slave trade, the Civil War, or Reconstruction. I did not grow up hearing those stories.

Furthermore, growing up in California, the history of slavery in the U.S. seemed somewhat removed. Of course, California has its own history of slavery, including the subjugation of indigenous peoples. Yet “U.S. Slavery” came across as something that happened in a distant time in a distant part of the country.

I wonder how this disconnection relates to how people in my community see the United States. Most Koreans (particularly of older generations) seem to see the U.S. in a positive light as protector and guardian. They view the U.S. through the lens of the Korean War, in which the U.S. supported the South Korean government. Certainly, there are difficult aspects of the U.S.–South Korea relationship, especially regarding the presence of the U.S. military in South Korea. Furthermore, I would be foolish to believe that all Koreans hold such a sanguine view of the U.S. However, my community lacks the same collective memory of injustice that my classmate described.

What I’ve learned from this experience is my need for humility. Because of my family history, I am prone to see the U.S. in a more positive light than my classmate would. I don’t think this is a difference in factual knowledge; I doubt that gathering more facts on slavery would change my disposition to the U.S., just as my classmate would likely not change her view in gathering more facts about the U.S.–South Korea relationship. But there is a difference between factual and personal knowledge. I must be humble and remember that other people have their own histories and their own perspectives.

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