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is central to Brooks' argument that the legacy of slavery is still very much in
evidence in America today. He has little truck with those who might say
that it was all a very long time ago, and there has been the Civil Rights
movement and subsequent legislation and whatever position people, that is say
Black Americans, find them selves in now is pretty much of their own making. He
acknowledges that many of the Jim Crow practices are gone, but suspects that
much of the culture still remains. In an effort to engage the dialogue on this
issue and to shift it to a more forward-looking perspective he brings to this
book both conceptual and concrete suggestions for what he terms the "black
he argues that in order for the ghost to be truly laid there must be active and
sincere acts of atonement and forgiveness. Atonement is more than saying sorry.
As he has written before, sorry is not enough. It must be reinforced, made real
by material acts. Similarly, forgiveness is more than sating you are forgiven
or it is alright now, let's move on. It is a profound and fundamental shift in
attitude and behavior.
book reads very much like a series of lectures in which Brooks lays out his
background, states his thesis and begins the debate by dealing, albeit quite
briefly at times, with some of the obvious objections or contrary positions to
his argument. By far the most interesting section here is the conceptual
development of atonement and forgiveness.
order for atonement to be considered authentic it must, the view of Brooks,
take on material form. He suggests two ways in which this might be done. Firstly,
by the establishment of a National Museum of Slavery. He notes convincingly
that although there are museums of the Holocaust and of the Armenian Genocide
there is nothing that tells the story or is in any way as public a memorial to
slavery and all that it meant and continues to mean. The Holocaust of the Jews,
Romany, mentally ill and others terrible though it was, happened elsewhere.
Slavery not only happened in America, it was, perhaps still is, indivisible from it. For
Brooks the nature of a public monument is both symbolic and practical and would
go a considerable way to acknowledging both the wounds and the contributions of
the slaves and their descendents.
issue of forgiveness is slightly more difficult and perhaps controversial. It
is important to note that forgiveness is a two stage process, at least. It is
first characterized by a relinquishing of any desire or need for revenge.
Secondly, it seeks to build something new for the future, without forgetting
the past. It is not a case of forgive and forget. Such things neither can nor
should be forgotten. Brooks wonders whether forgiveness, the victim's
willingness to respond affirmatively to the perpetrator's tender of atonement",
is a duty of or prerogative, and he is right to consider the moral, civic and
religious implications of this. He recognizes that this not only has an effect
on the perpetrator but on the forgiver as well. He does not, however, consider
the cases in which the perpetrator neither knows of nor asks for forgiveness.
Perhaps they do not care, perhaps they see nothing to ask for.
tends to tie atonement and forgiveness together; one cannot be without the
other, or at least forgiveness cannot come except in terms of a virtue. He
states that in his opinion, "in the absence of atonement …. forgiveness is
morally objectionable" (emphasis in the original just in case we
miss the point). However, it may be that it is Brooks who is missing the point.
Forgiveness can have a releasing power for the forgiver as it moves away from
the oppressive self-definition of victimhood. Brooks' position makes
forgiveness conditional which is at odds with its very nature.
his credit Brooks does consider a range of philosophical, moral and religious
positions on the nature of forgiveness. He is also at pains to distinguish
between the personal and the civic. There may be no point in expecting or
demanding that these acts take place on a personal level, or though for some as
in the case of South Africa for example personal contrition was very important.
It is far more significant, Brooks argues, that there is governmental action.
The government rather than the individual bears the responsibility for acts of
atonement, but he is less clear about the locus of forgiveness.
does look at other examples of nations trying to deal with similar issues. He
notes the Brazilian government's response given that Brazil was the last of the
American countries to outlaw slavery, he looks at the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission in South Africa without which, he ventures, a bloodbath may have
taken place, he looks at the case of the 'Stolen Generation' of Australian
Aborigines but it seems rather misunderstands the government's recalcitrance
and Prime Minister John Howard's hugely divisive comments on the "black
armband view of history". But it still an American-centric book. That is
not in itself a criticism, but for many non-American readers it will lessen its
should be said, by way of conclusion, that this seems to be an enormously
important issue. Brooks takes one particular part of the socio-political
landscape and examines it closely and by offering concrete suggestions opens up
the debate in a significant and constructive way. It is also a book that can
provoke examination of personal and individual acts, of duty and choice, of the
hold of the past and the promise of the future. It is a significant addition to
the dialogue and he should be congratulated for that; but more than that he
should be engaged.
© 2004 Mark Welch
Mark Welch, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the
University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta and Co-Director of the PAHO/WHO
Collaborating Centre for Nursing & Mental Health.