Posted by: HAT | October 27, 2009

Taking Slavery Seriously

Read a book in the children’s library yesterday, while waiting for my daughter to look something up on the computerized catalog. She’s on fall break. The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano, by Margarita Engle (New York: Henry Holt, 2006, ISBN 978-0-8050-7706-3). (Here’s a review by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.)

The book is remarkable and memorable. It has gotten me thinking, again, as I fold towels and put away groceries, about poetry and freedom and the need to own up to the hideous legacy of slavery as one of the beneficiaries of the position of the holders and owners — the authors of Civilization, of “Culture,” of “Humanism.”

I love to say the ancient Greeks are the villains of western civilization. I get a lot of pleasure out of saying it, and I say it whenever the occasion arises, which is reasonably often. I love saying it all the more because of the asphyxiating hellenophilic bias of the western humanities, and the inexcusable hellenotropism of Christian biblical studies, both of which demand ceaseless, vigilant resistance. But I haven’t gone nearly far enough. I am thinking all the more today, that anything the ancient Greeks ever said about freedom, or about anything, has to be qualified by a determined refusal to forget that they accepted slavery.

Ditto the Romans.

Ditto the western Europeans and all their heirs — the pilgrims, the “founding fathers,” the padres who built all the missions of California on which I wrote reports in 3rd grade, the Confederate officers whose grandchildren were my mother’s grandparents, the whole lot of them.

Ditto the ancient Israelites, though it hurts me like a knife to say it, and though I hope to think that case is complicated by the Exodus narrative.

Ditto people like me who [with slavery and human trafficking on the rise globally] STILL have not stopped shopping at WalMart.

The practice of slavery simply ought to call the entire culture into question. No more polite “balanced” discussions about whether it is fair to demean the fine art and the drama and the poetry and the philosophy and blah blah blah “just because” of a failure of enlightenment on this one point — as if it is an understandable and excusable failure, on a small point, as if anything like balance is possible, and as if posing the question in the first place didn’t already amount to an admission of willingness to consider letting the culture-makers off the hook for their inhumanity, as if anything actually balanced it out. “It was a long time ago.” As if what needs to be learned from all this has actually been learned already.

Walter Benjamin is right. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”1

Not facing up to it only prolongs the agony.

1 Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (VII), in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968) 256.


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