Kate Kellaway’s fascinating Q & A with new author Yaa Gyasi about her novel Homegoing reflects some of my own insights last week about the provincialism of the American people, and it reveals as well this gem of a comment from the novelist:
“Slavery is on people’s minds. It affects us still.”
Surely, I say to myself, she must be correct. Years ago, when I was first perusing Adler and Hutchins, I was startled to discover that they considered “Slavery” one of the Great Ideas of the Western World. How could this be? But they were correct. “Slavery” is one of the Great Ideas of the West–“great” in the sense of being extraordinarily important, not in the sense of being universally desired or admired. Slavery has destroyed or nearly destroyed every culture that has indulged the practice. Peter Frankopan’s history of the West, The Silk Roads, offers a quick survey of how slavery built societies all over the globe and simultaneously eroded the characters of those societies from within as it did so. The will to power, to domination, saps energy and genuine creativity over time. It does so in two critical ways: first, by making the enslavers intellectually and physically lazy; second, by depriving that society–through rebellion, injury, and death–of the myriad talents of those enslaved. Despite the fact that thousands of people died in this country a century and a half ago to break the chains of slavery, and despite the fact that many millions more died seventy years ago to prevent what was nothing less than slavery imposed by Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo (not to speak of the slavery offered Eastern Europe by our brutal ally, Stalin), slavery remains with us still. In China of the twentieth and twenty-first century, women, the elderly, and the disabled are particularly vulnerable to it. In Eastern Europe, the form of slavery most favored commonly involves prostitution. The closed societies of the Middle East make it harder to determine exactly what goes on there much of the time, but we may be certain that where slavery exists, life is not pleasant. In the failed states of dictatorial Africa, slavery is a de facto way of life for many, even where it is not de jure.
It is no wonder, then, that slavery is on people’s minds, especially the minds of people who have seen its effects first-hand, particularly journalists and aid workers and those fortunate enough to have escaped the despair of living the life it imposes. Yet, in the part of the West with which most of us are deeply familiar, slavery does not exist, and we would not dream of imposing it. But we still think of it. Why? Gyasi knows the answer and so do I. Slavery captures much more than the body. The last thing it enthralls, to the end of our days, is our thoughts. We can free the body of a slave. We can, though kindness and sensitive service, restore to that person some semblance of a civilized life. But the memory of being a slave we cannot touch. We cannot eradicate it, even though we desperately want to. (And even if we could, through mind conditioning, that process would itself represent the imposition of a form of slavery.)
The experience of slavery belongs only to those enslaved. The shame of slavery upon the enslavers and the degradation of that life upon the enslaved may be transmitted in the telling, and our society has those stories in abundance, but only those enslaved can know the life itself. I part company, then, with Gyasi in her belief that the experience of slavery can be inherited in our DNA. It cannot be, although many people, from those who broke the Jim Crow laws to those who marched for civil rights to those who proclaim today that Black Lives Matter, have had their minds and hearts filled with the tales of their ancestors, to the extent that every thought they’ll ever have will be colored by their interpretation of what they’ve been told.
As cold and unfeeling as this assessment may seem, I assure you that I make it with the examples of Ora Mae Farris, Margaret Jefferson, O.H. Crider, and Michael Shapiro before me. I will not and cannot forget their lessons to me of tolerance and civilized behavior toward African-Americans and members of the Jewish race, to name only two highly oppressed groups; and I am hopeful that, because slavery and the idea of it is not inheritable, one day (though not in my lifetime and perhaps not in your lifetime) we will have societies that will not think of slavery first and foremost as a means of expressing the supposed inhumanity of another group. Until that day (and I can see it, although it is a long way off), we will be encountering people–writers, artists, thinkers, social activists–whose lives have been shaped by what they have learned about slavery. Such people may be helpful to us in creating societies wherein slavery has no place; they may not. But it is clear to me that there are those whose thoughts will be forever entwined with the idea of slavery itself. I regard such persons with an uneasy mixture of pity (for a future whose potential shape they cannot see), of fear (for the damage their rage does to us and to the neighborhoods within which they live), and of respect (for their knowledge of our terrible past and their willingness to nevertheless live boldly toward the future despite what they know).