Updated: Feb 6
Shall we talk about slavery?
I honestly did not know the term Juneteenth, but over the years I have begun to understand a little about the history of enslavement.
However horrific you may think slavery was, it was worse. The echo of chattel slavery resonates throughout the Americas and scars modern history. It made colonial powers rich, caused untold misery and is somehow still debated.
This is not a nice story. But first, let’s all just clarify, the dumbest phrase is: “No one who was a slave, or a slave owner is still alive, so let’s move on (or get over it.. or whatever).” If you have ever said this, you are wrong.
Next, let’s dive a little further into slavery as a concept. Yes, versions of slavery have existed throughout human history. Indentured servitude, class oppression, religion, communism, fascism, debt cycles, hereditary privilege, etc, all assign involuntary roles, but the act of buying and selling people as tools is the ultimate crime.
It is for this reason we should use the term ‘enslaved’ – one is not born a slave, just as one is not born an astronaut. One takes years of study, support and skill; the other takes an oppressive system and a desperate lack of humanity.
Please do not wade into some pseudo-academic story of Africans selling Africans or the benevolence of Britain ending enslavement over 30 years after France, but before the USA. Let’s just stand back and mourn the brutal murder of millions upon millions of people, all justified by economics, presumed racial superiority and the Bible.
Nearly 50% of all enslaved peoples were taken to the Caribbean. Colonial Haiti was once among the most valuable places on Earth. Market demands for sugar resulted in new boatloads of enslaved peoples being transported to Hispaniola, because the previous year’s workers died during harvest. A few of the survivors were rewarded with rape and further abuse.
When the Haitians managed to defeat the Spanish and French empires, land owners transported the enslaved to Louisiana, where the institution continued for 60 more years. This is the legacy of slavery.
In Brazil, slavery was not abolished until the late 1880s. My great grandmother was still alive at that time – this is not ancient history. Brazil’s conservative elite – who are now ushering in a Covid genocide in the Amazon – say the millions who live in poverty are lazy. This is their excuse for massive favelas (slums), violence and an intractable class system.
Honestly, take the time to explore this further. People were shackled and transported across the Atlantic Ocean in squalid conditions, to then be traded, sold, raped and worked to death. If they somehow survived, their children were sold. All of this was justified through economics, religion and pure racism. Inheritance for them is only a legacy, not a source of wealth.
Somehow, society today seems to think the echo of this crime of crimes has magically disappeared. In the United States, where a bloody civil war was fought specifically over slavery (not the ‘States rights’ argument), the Confederate flag remains acceptable and even admired in certain circles.
History does not simply sit in a museum. In Ireland, the echoes of the famine – or, more specifically, the genocide – is felt throughout the diaspora. Antisemitism did not magically end with the fall of Nazi Germany, and the Indigenous people of the Americas have never assumed a bare minimum of institutional equality.
Slavery is both complicated historically and remarkably simple. There really is no crime worse than buying and selling fellow humans as chattel. Africans were not the only people to be enslaved, but as June 19th approaches – the day in 1865 when legal enslavement ended in the United States – this is a moment to explore the structure and system of privilege and oppression that has built the world’s most powerful economy.
For those in a position of power, it may help to ponder where in history one wants to be remembered. Sadly, the slave-owning generals of the American Confederacy have hung on to some status, but gradually their statues and status are being relegated to the same quarries as other dictators and demagogues. This is why Germany does not celebrate statues of Hitler.
And may it be noted that so many of those statues were erected decades after the Civil War as a reminder of institutional segregation.
The march towards human rights and real freedom is a long and complicated process. But there is almost always a ‘right side’.
Almost 30 years ago, I marched in a gay pride parade. I felt out of place, but knew it was the right place to be. In later years, I have attended numerous same-sex marriages. Hurray! Society has not fallen apart. In fact, a majority of people in democratic societies now support this obvious human right. The most oppressive regimes do not.
But I am not claiming any personal achievement. By setting aside my own biases and ingrained prejudgments, I am not a hero. I am simply slightly more part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
This is a time to pause and explore our own biases, our own judgments and our own society. It is not pretty. It is complicated and painful, but it really is not about ‘me’. This is not unconditional – ‘my tolerance ends where intolerance begins.’ Once again, this is my responsibility.
On the upside, an open, inclusive and respectful world is just so much nicer. We should cry for these crimes and we should really understand how modern wealth and society has developed. This is the bare minimum.
May I encourage everyone to visit a former plantation or specifically a sugar plantation. I like to think I would have chosen death over those conditions. While at it, visit a concentration camp somewhere in Europe, and then perhaps a refugee camp today.
The end of chattel enslavement was an important step, but we are only at the beginning of this journey. The very least we can do is be honest about what happened and the ongoing effects.
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