Thursday, January 18, 2007

“I’m sorry” can be the sweetest words a person can hear. An apology can act as an acknowledgment and a salve to soothe old wounds.

Recently a dear friend, bearing gifts, looked me in the eye, cleared his throat and apologized profusely for his hurtful past behavior. With time and distance, I came to see just how deeply troubled and regretful he was for the pain caused.

Against my caretaker instincts, I didn’t stop him from offering his uncomfortable mea culpa because I realized that he needed to say “I’m sorry,” just as much, if not more, than I needed to hear it.

How else could we heal, rekindle our friendship and move on, having weathered the worst? We were not simply going to just “get over it,” as if the incident never happened. And, we were visibly lighter for clearing the air.

Just two little words is not much to ask to acknowledge and move beyond hundreds of years of hurt either.

Why, then, do so many choke, even bristle, on the very idea of a simple apology for America’s painful past — the scourge and vestiges of slavery? Take Virginia Delegate Frank D. Hargrove Sr., Hanover Republican, a 79-year-old relic of the good Ol’ Dominion who doesn’t take a likingto saying “I’m sorry.” Mr. Hargrove told a Charlottesville reporter that “black citizens should get over” slavery, as if the enslaved ever had any choice or power over that peculiar institution.

An obvious standard-bearer of a dying era, Mr. Hargrove was objecting to a long overdue measure seeking a state apology for slavery that had been introduced in the General Assembly and debated in the Richmond statehouse on, of all days, the commemorative holiday for civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

To make matters worse, Mr. Hargrove appeared even more foul and foolish by suggesting, before a full chamber, that if blacks were to be extended such an apology, next “are we going to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ?” OK, who let the old howling hound dogs out? When he was admonished by a Jewish colleague from Alexandria for that ignorant remark, Mr. Hargrove turned to the younger man, Delegate David L. Englin, and suggested that perhaps his “skin was a little too thin.” He should have ignored any harassment he suffered as a child because of his religion.

Here again, the offender condescends to tell the offended how to appropriately react to the offense. The gaul.

“When somebody tells me I should just get over slavery, I can only express my emoting by project that I am appalled, absolutely appalled,” said Delegate Dwight C. Jones, Richmond Democrat and head of the Legislative Black Caucus.

The good news, though, is that we have reached a point in our history where such scurrilous statements are no longer met with howls of laughter or agreement, but with utter denunciation and disgust.

Even in the former capital of the Confederacy, racial and religious intolerance are out of order, at least publicly.

State Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, Richmond Democrat, and state delegate A. Donald McEachin, Richmond Democrat, introduced legislation seeking an apology for the Old Dominion’s part in the wretched institution of slavery as well as for its vestiges of racial discrimination.

“An apology for centuries of brutal dehumanization and injustices cannot erase the past, but confession of the words can speed racial healing and reconciliation, and help African-American and white citizens to confront the ghosts of their collective pasts together,” the resolution states.

These black state representatives, seeking racial reconciliation, think 2007 is as good a time as any to bring the legislation forward because Virginia is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in this nation at Jamestown. The first viable colony in the New World was also the first to import free slave labor.

If passed, the written state apology would be fittingly placed in the National Slavery Museum being built in Fredericksburg, in part with state funding, honoring the efforts of former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the grandson of slaves who rose to become the first black governor in this nation.

It is important to note that neither member is seeking reparations for the descendants of slaves, an issue too hot to even mention without setting tongues afire.

Critics such as Mr. Hargrove often argue that no one living is responsible for slavery. True, but many are still suffering from its remnants. More Americans need to research this country’s history so they will learn about the critical economic and cultural contributions slaves made in the development of this mighty nation.

It is not that the apology sought is without cause.

Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy. The Old Dominion’s leaders engaged in massive resistance, closing down public schools in the 1950s rather than allowing blacks to attend them after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling.

But old views die hard along the James River.

Though it is rarely arrived at easily, a sincere, heartfelt apology is always appreciated. It may not change the past, but it paves the way toward a better future.

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