One of the most interesting books I’ve read in recent years is Vanderbilt psychiatrist Volney Gay’s On The Pleasures of Owning Persons: The Hidden Face of American Slavery, reflecting on the day-to-day details of pre-Civil War slavery in the southern United States. From the Preface:
This book is a study of the pleasures that slavery gives to owners. This is a demanding, if not an unfathomable topic that rests upon a simple, self-evident truth. The unfathomable part is because slavery seems remote from us now in the 21st century we struggle to imagine its workings from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The self-evident truth is that millions of Americans, over a span of nearly four centuries, owned slaves because they wished to. They actively chose and maintained a way of life which they felt merited protection and permanency. A small number of these people were sociopathic, most likely between 2 and 4 percent, the usual norm for large populations.[i] Most were not. Indeed, outstanding persons, among them undoubted geniuses like Thomas Jefferson, engaged in slavery all their lives. It is difficult to understand sociopathic persons, but the vast majority of owners were like you and me, normal. Great men who laid the foundations of American freedom defended to their graves the institution of slavery. This book addresses three questions: what were these pleasures; how did freedom-loving, American Christians explain ownership to themselves; how did they defend themselves against this double contradiction?
Despite rhetoric about freedom, the maintenance of slavery was a key preoccupation of many of the American founders, as ample documentation shows. Their way of life depended on it. When people’s way of life depends on something that is morally wrong, curious contradictions arise: Slave owner claimed that slaves were part of their family, but they could sell them without any sense of hypocrisy.
July 31, 2016 Gay writes a blog at Huffpost in which he examines cultural representations of slavery:
Slavery in Recent American Films: “Lincoln”
In speeches that won him the Republican nomination for President, Lincoln looked back to the intentions of the Founders, “Our Fathers” as he called them. In his debates with Stephen A. Douglas, his Democratic opponent for the US Senate, and in his speech at Cooper Union on February 27, 1860, Lincoln also looked forward. He recognized that the US began with an accommodation to slavery. While the Constitution of 1787 embodied compromises with slaveholders, that was an expedient. The Founders tolerated the existence of slavery; they did not promote it. For that reason, Lincoln said the Constitution did not contain the words “slave” and “slavery.” This was done “on purpose to exclude from the Constitution the idea that there could be property in man.“
Slavery in Recent American Films: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”
In “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” Lincoln becomes a superhero. Experiencing vampiric evil as a boy, Lincoln acquires a magical device—a silver ax—to defeat the undead. In real life, Lincoln experienced the everyday evils of American slavery. The movie’s insight is to merge these two story lines: the undead element of American history is our origin as a slave power, created by northern and southern leaders. As clever as the movie is, it has one glaring problem. The problem is that the movie portrays vampires, the vampire part of us, as associated only with the Confederacy. Naturally, this becomes a plot device. The South’s vampire allies are destroying Union troops. Drawing upon his vampire-wisdom, Lincoln supplies Union soldiers with silver bullets and silver cannonballs. That does the trick and CSA vampires are slaughtered left and right.
Accessing our knowledge about vampires, this seems sensible. Or is it? Anne Rice, another vampire authority, declared that silver bullets kill werewolves but “Vampires are not particularly affected by silver bullets.” Leaving aside this debate, the movie affirms a common illusion of those raised in the North. That illusion is that slavery was a Southern problem not an American problem. More.
Reality check: Gay demonstrates that people can and will learn to live with the idea of owning people who live with them. But we congratulate ourselves too easily for having thrown that off (or never adopted it, as in Canada).
Many people who are near-slaves in east Asian countries enable our comfortable standard of living, and we never need to see it or know about it. The introduction of temporary foreign workers, whatever its merits, introduces the idea of workers with fewer rights than others. People say that migrants doing low wage jobs are benefiting because they can send remittances back to Mexico. Fair enough, but we are introducing a class of non-citizens livng in the shadows.
One can argue the causes, merits, and solutions in each case but we had better not be complacent about our role in today’s oppression.
See also: About that Toronto poster against Islamophobia Who was the PR firm? Fire their asses. Look at the poster. Just look at it