One of the hardest things about writing this book is to be compassionate toward history. How do I write about the people who were enslaved AND the slave owners with compassion in mind? How do I balance the horror of the institution and its actors with the compassion that I feel is due every human being? How do I show compassion to people who were owned and to the people who owned them?
I was particularly challenged by this idea today when I watched historian Karen Armstrong discuss the Charter for Compassion. She has started a global movement (see below) to encourage compassion in our relationships, work, religions (this is a big one!), and across all facets of life. I want to be a part of this work, and therefore, I want my writing to encourage compassion, not increase division or judgment or pain.
At this point in my work, I vacillate between righteous indignation toward slave owners and rational understanding (I don’t think I can – given my place in history – develop full emotional and psychological understand) for why people enslaved other people. The element of myself that seeks justice and restoration angles toward anger and condemnation; the part of me that seeks mercy and forgiveness angles toward understanding.
Perhaps there’s a middle line to walk here – a way to condemn the choices without condemning the people, but I’m just not sure. That whole idea sounds far too much like “love the sinner, hate the sin” for me, and I find that idea very hard, if not impossible, to practice. So then is my goal to be as fair and reasonable as possible toward the slave owners while still condemning their choice? Is my goal to speak for those who couldn’t speak for themselves? Can I do both of these things?
How does one show compassion when writing about a period that did not have compassion? How do I show compassion to slaves and slave owners?
“Speaking the Truth and Admitting My Own Racism”