Sunday, March 2, 2014

Remembering Things We Would Prefer to Forget

Recently a friend drew my attention to this article about the treatment of slavery by Southern plantation tourist attractions and museums.  It brought to mind some thoughts I've had about this and related topics, and I decided to transcribe those thoughts here.

First, while I find slavery abhorrent, believe it has no place in modern society, and am saddened that it still exists in the 21st century, I do not believe we can apologize for or make amends for the slavery white Americans inflicted on black people in the past.  We are not responsible for what our ancestors did.  In the past, slavery was acceptable.  Apologizing for that belief held by people we never knew seems insincere to me.  We can feel regret for what they did, but we cannot feel true remorse or apologize sincerely because we ourselves are not the people who committed the offense.  Resentment over things that happened before any of us were born hinders us from moving forward.  Apologizing, or trying to make amends by setting up memorials, or making films like 12 Years A Slave, just give people an opportunity to think, "It's all right now, I don't have to feel badly about slavery anymore," and then stop thinking about it.

What we should do is remember.  We should remember what slave owners did to slaves.  We should remember so we can avoid doing that again.  We should also remember, as the article points out, that slaves did not simply live in misery all the time.  They had full lives just like everyone else.  Even when they faced being permanently separated from their families, they still had happiness sometimes.  If we assume that their lives were nothing but pain and sorrow we diminish them as people.

We also need to remember that America was not the only country where slavery was practiced.  It has been practiced by almost every major culture in history.  The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Celts, Chinese - all had slaves.  Many African and Native American tribes practiced slavery.  Slavery has been a common example throughout history of how humans treat the "other", people who are different from themselves.  Different tribes, different cultures, different languages all have given us an excuse to say, "Those people aren't us, they aren't really people.  It's all right to take everything from them and force them to live where we tell them and do what we want them to do, without any compensation." 

Even when it wasn't called slavery, there were still many practices of oppressing and marginalizing other people.  Thralls, serfs, bondsmen, indentured servants - all are forms of slavery, situations where one person gives up freedom, sometimes willingly, most of the time not.  Medieval serfs couldn't decide to move or work for a different lord.  Indentured servants had an opportunity to pay off their debts, but until they were able to earn enough to do that they had no freedom.  Shanghaied sailors were subjected to a form of slavery, kidnapped and forced to work on a ship they had not chosen for little or no wage. Servants in the households of Victorian England might have earned wages, but the restrictions set on them by their employers weren't much better than slavery, and the wages weren't enough to live on.  Factory workers during the 19th century didn't have much better lives than slaves, either.  They didn't have to fear their children or spouses would be sold and sent away, but they had few options for improving their lives.  Even in the 20th century here in the US, mining companies virtually enslaved their miners, forcing them to live in company-owned housing for which they became indebted to the company, and paying them in company currency called 'scrip' that was only good at company-owned stores.  The miners couldn't leave because they were in debt to the company, and they couldn't strike for fear they would be evicted from their homes.  And many women are still enslaved for sexual purposes, deprived of any means of support and blackmailed into cooperation by threats of violence against themselves or their children.  Slavery hasn't gone away, we've just changed its name.

Let's stop wringing our hands over what our ancestors did, and instead remember it and vow to ourselves that we will not allow this to happen again.  Let us not look on those who are different from us as less than ourselves, or unworthy of the same freedom we have.  Let us treat everyone with respect.  Let us fight to prevent others from being enslaved or oppressed.  That is the best response to slavery we can give. 

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