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Essays in “The Burden” explore slavery’s continuing impact on America

A new book from Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley is a compilation of essays examining the lasting legacy of slavery
Courtesy of Wayne State University Press
A new book from Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley is a compilation of essays examining the lasting legacy of slavery

Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley joined Stateside today and read from her new book The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery.

Riley edited the collection of two dozen essays, and wrote an essay herself.

From her essay:

I will not shut up about slavery. It is not a distant memory that African Americans should get over, relegate to dust, like the millions of Africans who did not survive it. It is not something that began and ended like a beating or a trial. It was instituted and embraced to build a country. Then it evolved, and hundreds of years later remains ingrained in the way we live, whether we are those watching from an uncomfortable, sometimes guilty perch or listing on the edge of despair and irrelevance every day.

She also read another passage:

Much of white America has spent centuries racesplaining: mocking the idea that racism exists or demanding evidence of it or expressing sorrow about it while doing little or nothing to end it…. Slavery continues to color our journey—darkly. Always has. Always will. Until we put the burden down.

Riley discussed The Burden and the legacy of slavery in America on Stateside today.

Listen above for the full conversation, or read highlights below.

On The Burden's origin

Riley had long planned to write on the topic, but three years ago she came across a column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that argued that black people should get over slavery because white guilt was challenging relationships between races. The column instigated Riley’s project.

First she wrote a Facebook post, and then she decided to compile a collection of voices.

Riley reached out to a number of writers, asking them to write about the legacy of slavery in America. She didn’t think everyone she talked to would accept but, to her surprise, they all did. She ended up with 23 pieces, plus her own.

On the need for this conversation now

Riley believes that we are long overdue for a conversation about the way slavery and its legacy still impacts life for African Americans.

“Slavery didn’t end, it just changed addresses,” she said. “We left plantations and it moved into corporations, into media companies, into schools, into government, and we have to at some point deal with it.”

Riley drew a distinction between repairing and reparations.

“There was an emotional toll, an emotional damage, that still happens now,” she said. “My daughter was called the n-word when she was five years old. That was, you know, not in the 18th or 19th century.”

On why white people should read The Burden

Whereas The Burden might reveal to black families that others have similar experiences, it also offers “realization and enlightenment” for white families.

“That’s all we’re asking for. Pay attention to the fact that these things are real and this is something we’ve carried for a long time and it’s time for us to put the burden down.”

Riley, like many authors on the subject, has faced criticism from families whose ancestors arrived in America after the 13th Amendment was passed and were not involved in the slave industry.

“I’m not standing here in 2018 saying, ‘This is your fault,’” she said. “What I’m saying is this is something America did to an entire group of people and at some point we have to talk about that and deal with that.”

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

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