Friday, January 30, 2009

On Slavery

By Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2008)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
The Lost German Slave Girl by John Bailey
The Known World by Edward P. Jones

Why do humans enslave their brethren? One answer is that slave labor enables the powerful to achieve great things. Another answer is that slaves, being denied their free will, serve at the pleasure of their masters. A third answer is that slavery is the most severe form of racism because one race can justify enslaving another by claiming genetic superiority. There are many answers to this question, and coupled with the pervasiveness of racism and tribal hatred, suggest that as a species, we still have work to do.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was the sensitive and insightful daughter of a minister who preached vehemently about the evils of slavery during the time when the United States of America was embroiled in an angry debate over whether new slave states should be admitted to the Union. Harriet Beecher had the benefit of a good education and a successful marriage to Calvin Stowe, a professor at a theological seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. While raising their seven children, Mrs. Stowe became a well-known writer and published 30 books, the most famous of which is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This book, a classic piece of American literature, was an immediate best-seller and served to raise the consciousness of many Americans, particularly in the north, about the horrors of slavery. President Abraham Lincoln is said to have credited Harriet Beecher Stowe with starting the Civil War because of the public outcry her book generated.

Uncle Tom, a middle-aged husband and father, starts out as the property of Kentucky farmers, Arthur and Emily Shelby. Mr. and Mrs. Shelby express genuine affection for their slaves, however, when bad times come they decide to reduce their inventory. In addition to Tom, the Shelbys plan to sell Harry, the son of Mrs. Shelby’s maid, Eliza. Eliza will not be parted from her son, so she and Harry escape in the hope of reaching Canada where Eliza’s husband lives in freedom. Their journey is fraught with hardship and peril given the cold winter and the pursuit of a ruthless slave catcher.

Meanwhile Tom, accepting his fate with quiet dignity, is taken away from his family and home by a slave trader. While traveling down the river to the slave market, a golden-haired and blue-eyed child named Eva falls overboard. Tom dives in and saves her from drowning. Eva’s father, Augustine St. Clare, purchases Tom out of gratitude for his heroism and brings him home to New Orleans. Tom and Eva become very attached to one another, but the little girl falls ill and eventually dies. Harriet Beecher Stowe uses the St. Clare household as a forum for discussing attitudes toward slavery. Mr. St. Clare does not like the institution of slavery, but knows no other way to make a profit off his land. Eva’s Aunt Ophelia, on the other hand, is an abolitionist but feels disgust toward blacks. In the end, however, Eva through her charitable heart teaches her aunt to love the slaves as humans. Shattered by Eva’s death, Mr. St. Clare decides to give Tom his freedom, but is murdered before he is able to do this. Mrs. St. Clare shares none of her late husband’s humanity and sells Tom to a vicious plantation owner named Simon Legree.

Simon Legree’s plantation is a hellish place where young black women are kept for sex and slaves are ordered to beat one another. Tom, being the gentle, loving, and spiritual person he is, cannot obey his master’s order to beat a fellow slave. Mr. Legree decides to beat the Christianity out of Tom but fails. Just the same, Tom suffers a crisis of faith wondering how a loving God can let such cruelty stand. Eva appears to him in a vision and restores his faith in Christianity. Thus restored, Tom facilitates the escape of two women from Mr. Legree’s sex slavery and is able to withstand the beatings aimed at making him reveal the whereabouts of the runaways. As death approaches, Tom forgives Mr. Legree and men who are beating him. The end of the story features a tragic and ironic twist which brought thousands of readers to tears.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin unfortunately fell into disfavor during the civil rights era of the 1960s. Many African Americans at the time felt it described African slaves as so downtrodden that they meekly accepted beatings and degradation by cruel masters. “Uncle Tom” became a pejorative label for a black man who didn’t join the fight against segregation. This is a sad mischaracterization because Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most important works of the Abolitionist cause, and ultimately set the stage for the end of segregation.

Slavery has been a human practice since before recorded history. The ancient Babylonians under their Code of the Hammurabi (circa 1800 BC) legitimized slavery as a redress for serious crimes against others. In the 1700s, slave labor in North America enabled the British Colonies to develop vast cotton and tobacco plantations, yielding the economic leverage needed to win independence from England. As a new nation, the United States of America faced an immediate crisis when designing an unprecedented form of government: southern states depended on slave labor to produce their crops while many in the northern states felt that slavery was criminal and unacceptable. In order to establish a government, the framers of the Constitution wisely deferred decisions about slavery to a future time. Slavery for some was a way of life, for others a necessary evil, and for many in the original 13 colonies, an abhorrent and sinful practice.

Slavery was emotionally loaded even within the slave states, so it became important to create clear delineations between the different castes. Many, if not most, slave owners considered themselves Christians and in order to avoid damnation for sins against other humans, they decided that Africans were less than human and therefore among the creatures that God had instructed Adam and Eve to subdue. White masters were often sexually attracted to their slaves and pregnancies occurred. Over generations, the clear line between black and white became harder and harder to define. Many so-called blacks were much more white than black, but because they were the descendents of slaves, regardless of how much or how little African blood coursed through their veins, they were denied personhood. The Lost German Slave Girl by lawyer John Bailey, is an analysis of this twisted bit of logic. Based on a true legal case, The Lost German Slave Girl is the story of Sally Miller a slave to a cabaret owner in New Orleans, who looked as white as her master but was said to have had a black ancestor. Salome Mueller was a German child who had travelled across the Atlantic Ocean to America with her mother, father, brother, sister, and godmother in 1818. Witnesses testified that Frau and Herr Muller died en route and the brother disappeared into the Louisiana wilderness. With no money to pay for further passage, Salome and her sister were put off the riverboat and left to their fate.

About 20 years later Salome’s godmother, Eva Schuber, spied Sally Miller and “recognized” her as her missing goddaughter. Mr. Bailey builds his story around the facts of the case which are often in conflict with one another. Was Sally Miller the missing Salome Muller – a white woman wrongfully enslaved – or was she legally owned by cabaret proprietor, Louis Belmonti? Mr. Bailey has an opinion about the truth, but the point of the book is more about the rationalizations slave owners used to deny the humanity of their subjects. In order to enslave another human being, it is necessary not only to dominate him or her, but to believe that you are higher on the evolutionary chain, and therefore closer to God.

Slavery, however, was a messy business. It turns out that a surprising number of African Americans, themselves freed slaves, became slave owners. The Known World by Edward P. Jones is a fictionalized analysis of this phenomenon. According to the author, "In 1855 in Manchester County, Virginia, there were 34 free black families... and eight of those free families owned slaves." This is a staggering statistic and turns the notion of slaves being solely under the domination of white owners on its head. Because slavery caused many slave owners anguish, a number of blacks were given their freedom and they had papers to prove it. Some of these newly freed blacks had great talents and highly developed skills and were able to amass a degree of wealth. With wealth came land and land required slaves in order to make the economy of farming work. The title “The Known World” comes from a quote by Voltaire: “All the known world, excepting only savage nations, is governed by books.” It suggests not only that the keeping of slaves is an ignorant and backward practice, but also that slaves having not had the benefit of any education only knew the world within the confines of their masters’ properties. More than any other work cited here, The Known World made it clear that all men are indeed created equal whether pursuing greatness and beauty or ugliness and brutality.

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