ALMOST HALF a century ago, Martin Luther King Jr. captured a problem that still plagues us today. Cautioning his flock against the complacent embrace of incomplete knowledge, he warned: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.’’
I have thought of those words often in the last few years as I worked to unearth the history of a century and a half of slavery on a Massachusetts farm first owned by the famous Puritan, Governor John Winthrop, whose “Model of Christian Charity’’ is often quoted even now.
In the several times I have presented these unpleasant truths in talks at major universities, I have inquired afterwards – who knew this history of slavery in the North? Usually only about three hands go up of 30. And most of these people are professors. Among non-professors the void is even deeper. Students, stumbling on this news, tend to ask with some aggression: “Why didn’t they teach us this?’’ Why didn’t I know?
I am older, and I grew up in a different time, but I said these words myself not long ago. Now that I know better, I realize there are many answers to the question. But the best perhaps are these: Easier not to. More comfortable not to.
Yet as King suggested, responsible dialogue can not move forward with half-truths and willful ignorance. In this regard, the North has work to do. It lags behind the South in stepping up to ugly truths.