Yesterday on Facebook, I posted this quote and asked ‘Does anyone see anything troubling here?:
“‘He was one Christian-hearted man.’ You can see that when you walk over the plantation and look at the dwellings he made for his slaves. Charming adobe houses that are warm in winter and cool in summer and houses built of slate rock.”
And I was truly surprised by the responses it evoked; I thought I would get some – “Man, oh man” type comments from people who are still stunned, a little, by people’s thought processes, and some people did respond that way. But others were more interested in commenting on the fact that I posted rather than on what I posted. I do honestly appreciate that; we all need to be held accountable. One friend pointed out that “some people’s hypocrisy is just more obvious than others…,” which is certainly true – I certainly have places in my own world view that are inherently hypocritical.
Another friend wrote me a private message to share his thoughts: He said,
The only thought I would offer though is to remember the context. When it was written (much like we do with the scriptures) there were certain cultural understandings in place at the time. I am not saying it was right, but the perspective of the writer should be taken into account when we read the quote. Slavery was an awful part of our history, but at the time it was acceptable.
He’s absolutely right. Context in any sort of inquiry is so important, crucial in fact, especially to a research project like mine where I am trying to understand the minds of the people who lived on this plantation in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Yet, while I appreciate being asked to critique my own perspective and being reminded of the importance of cultural context in any analysis, I was truly surprised by these comments because I felt that this quote was so stunning in the way it diminished the horror of slavery that I could not even imagine commenting on the writer (either me or the original author).
In fact, I got a little angry, and it took me a few hours to figure out why. I wasn’t angry because I was critiqued; I wouldn’t be much of a writer if I couldn’t handle a little honest feedback. No, what was making me angry was that these comments – sent in love and compassion as they were – were focused on giving sympathy and insight toward the writer of the quote rather than sympathy and understanding to the slaves who lived in these “charming adobe houses.” I do not know why we continue to downplay this historical atrocity and to ignore the legacy it leaves in American society. I’m not saying AT ALL that this is what my friends were doing; they weren’t. But their comments are symptomatic of our culture which says we need to contextualize everything and see it was a product of its times. It’s almost as if we are saying that because most people believed slavery was acceptable – i.e it was a cultural norm – that made it okay. Oh, I think that’s dangerous.
Of course slavery was a cultural norm; that’s the point. Part of the horror of the institution was that it was so widely accepted. (If it helps to put this in a non-American context, think about how many Germans accepted The Third Reich . . . and thus, tacitly supported the Holocaust.) Just because it was an accepted system at the time (or even 70 years later when this quote was published), does not make it any less horrific.
As my friend pointed out, many people still feel this way now. I cannot tell you how many times in the past few months people have reminded me that slavery has existed in every society in the world, as if that somehow makes it okay. “Well, the Greeks had slaves, so it’s okay that we did.” No, no, it’s not.
We need to own this part of our history as a horror, a travesty, and a legacy that has pervasive and profound affects in 21st century America. As long as we excuse it as a cultural moment or just a product of the times, as long as we say things like “of course it was wrong” and then continue to offer our justifications for why it was acceptable that it was wrong, we not only disregard the experience of enslaved people in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, but we also set ourselves up to excuse our own contemporary atrocities – widespread homelessness, increasing rates of childhood obesity, ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia – as simply products of our time. I am not willing to disregard either.
So I’ll just say it – this quote is troubling because:
a. It sets up this slave-owner as a man following Christ who owns slaves not just despite of the call to be like Christ (We all fall far short of living up to that standard.) but as part of his very faith. This is simply a repetition of the apology people offered when they used Biblical passages to justify slavery in the 1800s.
b. It says that the standard for being a loving person is to provide people with simple basic needs. That’s not a standard I want to use for what it means to love; that’s the standard I want to use for acting as a human being.
c. It excuses slavery as a quaint, “charming” institution. It was not. Even in places where the master was kind by the standards of his day – as was true on this plantation – slavery was a system where people were treated as things, logged next to cattle and shovels in farm books, and sold at auction like we sell cars and farm equipment today.
So what troubles me is that we seem to still need to offer up excuses for our cultural choices. Nope, I won’t excuse that.
– Slaves in New Bern, NC