So, Alabama has joined Maryland, North Carolina, and Virginia in offering official state apologies for slavery. Very interesting. It is easy to be snarky about these sorts of gestures or read in them cynical aims, etc., but I think apology deserves a serious bit of consideration. Apology is no small thing. The fact that no Republican supported this apology reminds us that there is real symbolic something to public apology. More directly, as we know from our personal lives, a sincere apology can transform a friendship or love relationship by reckoning with a hurtful past event or events. How this translates into the political realm, however, is where things get even more complicated. This is not to say that interpersonal apology is uncomplicated. In fact, many of the problems we can raise about apology in a political context hold true for the interpersonal. For example, consider how the appeal of apology is always in question. I mean “appeal” in two senses.
First, there is what one finds appealing about the offering of apology, both as the sender and the receiver of an apology. As the receiver of an apology, there is the appeal of recognition: the wrong you have committed against me is now recognized as wrong, something that, at the time of harming me, you likely (even necessarily) failed to recognize. As the sender of apology, there is the appeal of monstration: I demonstrate to you and to myself that I am a changed person. If I offer an apology, I implicitly say “I was wrong, as a person, to have harmed you in that way; I am different now, and therefore am capable of offering an apology.” Indeed, the sender of an apology who has not changed prior to (or even in the moment of) offering an apology is, by definition, insincere. Sincerity is therefore the cornerstone of authentic apology.
A second, and most often most compelling, consideration is what apology asks of the receiver, implicitly or explicitly. Here we can make a distinction between a pure and a mediated apology. A pure apology is offered without any request of the receiver – perhaps to the point of not even expecting acceptance of that apology. I apologize because I have profound, transformative regrets. End of story. A mediated apology, however, expects something of the receiver. Since I have apologized, you must accept that apology and be a certain kind of person in our (certain kind of) relationship. That is, an apology is offered with the assumption that all accounts are settled. Or at least a lot of them. We know this too well, right? Just think about someone accepting your apology, then still being angry with you. There is always that sense of “how dare you still be mad?! I apologized!”
This also returns us to the question of sincerity. An apology can only request forgiveness from the receiver of the apology if the sender is sincere – that is, has genuinely reformed. Now, this opens up a whole cluster of complications about whom is forgiven – if one reforms, are we really forgiving the same person who committed the harm? – and I’d simply appeal to Derrida’s lucid and brilliant essay “On Forgiveness.” Those issues aside, we can learn a lot about the Alabama case, leading to, I think, unexpected conclusions.
To begin, there is the shameful party-line split in the Alabama vote: all Republicans voted against the apology measure, all Democrats voted for it. Whatever the complications of apology in this or any case, it seems really odd to vote against such an effort. (I doubt they objected on Derridean grounds.) I can’t find a source with Republicans explaining their vote. I’d appreciate one, if one can be found.
No small part of the enigma of Alabama’s apology lies in the racial composition of the whole affair. The proposal was crafted and sponsored by two African-American senators. Nearly half of the Democratic majority is African-American. So, we are in the strange position of African-Americans drafting, pushing through, and voting through an apology for their own ancestors’ enslavement. Two thoughts. First, there is the obvious: are you kidding me? Shouldn’t white lawmakers be initiating this sort of thing? Why are descendants of the victims offering apology?
Second, and maybe a bit unexpected, a retraction of those sentiments: then again, if apology is offered by the state for the state’s actions (and so not from individuals), what does it matter that the lawmakers were black, not white? The state is where political responsibility is borne, where history makes claims on us, and not just me or you. I would argue that we are called to a responsibility as individuals for historical wrongs, but that is a different matter than that of collective responsibility. If we are responsible for historical wrongs, the state embodies that responsibility.
Not sure how to sort out those two thoughts. Perhaps it is worth considering this: what better way to honor the memory of the dead and those who suffered inconceivable pain in the South than by just this gesture. Imagine a time travel, saying this to ancestors: your descendants will one day make a decision in this state to apologize for all of this pain, suffering, and death. The recognition of that wrong and statement of apology for it will not be dependent upon white people alone. Worth thinking about.
Now, this brings us back to the appeals of apology. Since this is an apology crafted and passed by African-American legislators, we can’t go too far with the vanity of apology. This isn’t simply a case of white Alabama folk posing for the literal and figurative cameras – see, we’re not like those people from way back when. But there is a question of what one might imagine is asked of those still aggrieved by the memory and legacy of enslavement. Does this apology mean that African-Americans, at least in Alabama, are required to say goodbye to the pain of memory? Who has the right to ask that? Is apology really that powerful? I mean, really, the memory of pain is written just so deep in the body. It is a lot to expect or ask of legislative statements, lifting this pain with a sweeping forgiveness. And so we’d do well to retract such demands.
So, the obvious question: why apology at all, if it doesn’t settle all accounts? I put it that way – “settle all accounts” – with a purpose. We in the United States, for better or worse (usually worse), tend to measure actions (governmental or otherwise) on an economic model. What’s the cash value? What do we get for return on our investment? Well, in this case, not much. No twenty acres and a mule reparation, no state action, no institutional reform. But interpersonal apology is rarely understood on such economic terms. In fact, apology is genuinely human work and expression. Sometimes it is important to just say who you are and what you believe, without a demand outside one’s own question of sincerity. To bear witness to a wrong and proclaim it as a wrong worthy of regret, even long after the end of that wrong. That’s just human work. We do it all the time in our interpersonal lives. We’d do well to affirm such work in our political lives. The term “politics,” of course, derives from the Greek “polis,” a term that names the totality of human community and interaction. Perhaps that human work will become something material and institutional, returning us to the economic model. I hope it does. In lieu of that, however, we’d to well to affirm human work as human work.
By way of conclusion, I think it is worth taking up another obvious question, one that takes us to another unexpected place. Isn’t this apology a little late? After all, we’re nearing 150 years since the close of the Civil War. Why apologize now? Where was this apology after the Civil War? During Jim Crow? After the fall of Jim Crow and the victory of the civil rights movement? Well, if I am right that apology is only possible when the sender of the apology is reformed, then we might ask this question as a response: how could there have been apology in the past? Where can we locate the proper conditions for apology? This returns us to my naming of the first enigma of the Alabama apology. An authentic apology is only possible if the sender is reformed. Since the sender is the state proper, and not white folks from Alabama in general or particular white legislators, perhaps the fact that this apology is initiated by African-American senators is the best and most demonstrable evidence of reform. Seriously. Black people in charge of Alabama’s senate? And so of an authentic apology.
In short: only now, because they are the ones who offer it.