Thinking About Slavery

This is a hell of a country.

In judging slavery in the United States, which we are frequently asked to do, it is useful to ask what one would oneself do if in the situation of the slave. The question brings clarity. A wide gulf lies between tolerating the wrongs inflicted on others, and suffering them oneself. We all bear up well under the misfortunes of others.

My attitude toward slavery is about as simple as things get.

If anyone tried to enslave me, or my family, I would kill him if I could. If he endeavored to make me work by wielding a whip, I would kill him. If I fled and men tracked me with dogs, I would kill them. Just put a rifle in my hands. If anyone chose to whip my children or use my daughter as a sexual toy, I would kill him. I am not given to sadistic fantasies, but in this case I would make a large exception. And if a pleasant and well-dressed family responsible for all of this lived in a nice house on a hill, I would burn it with them in it.

Some things no one should be required to endure. Slavery is one of them. Others are assault with a deadly weapon, rape, sequestration of one’s children, and criminal intrusion into one’s home. All of these justify killing as a remedy. A slave, again as I see things, has an inalienable right to do anything necessary to effect his escape. Whether he is enslaved in the work camps of a Stalin or a Hitler, by the Spanish conquistadors or by a cotton farmer in Mississippi, matters not at all. The right of self-defense applies absolutely, think I.

Now, you may ask, does that mean that if I had been a slave I would have killed Thomas Jefferson and George Washington? Yes. A nice prose style and enlightened ideas about other things do not justify slavery. Nothing does. Not, at any rate, if I am the slave.

If this seems excessive, ask: Would you, today, allow yourself to be made the chattel of a latter-day Jefferson, or of anyone else? Your children? Then why might you expect anyone else to view things differently?

The foregoing conveys how I would view things if I were the slave. Suppose that instead I had been born into a rich family in the countryside near Charlottesville, Virginia, in the eighteenth century. We would of course have had slaves. Slavery would have seemed natural to me, as it would have been the only world I had known. My childhood would have passed under the tutelage of a mammy, of whom I would have been fond.

The acceptance of accustomed evil is remarkably easy. England’s poor children during the Industrial Revolution suffered horrible mistreatment, as did those of Northern sweatshops in America: Slavery has various forms. These abuses were deplored by some, excused by others, but continued because they brought advantages to those who ruled. The better classes seldom see the evils by which they live. They avert their eyes by one means or another.

Confusingly, many who owned slaves were not bad people. As the child of slave-owners in the rolling countryside of central Virginia, I might have known my mother to be kindly, my father to be a good-hearted man of principle who believed in fairness, the neighbors to be upright and civic-minded. The mind being the strange contrivance that it is, men of noble inclination can found a nation on freedom while having their farms worked by slaves. There was nothing unusual here. Hypocrisy is the natural condition of man. Today Christians insisting that God is Love bomb Moslem children. Praise Jesus.

Having come to adulthood in the circumstances of Charlottesville, what would I have then done, or thought, about slavery? I might have equivocated, had qualms, as many did. I might have had my slaves freed upon my death, as many did. This of course would have amounted to saying that slavery was a great evil, but not as great as my having to do my own work. It is the exact moral equivalent of buying goods made by sweated labor abroad while making indignant noises.

A virtue of outrage is that it requires little effort. Today, the country’s black children rot in wretched schools. This offends virtuous whites, who nonetheless do nothing about it. Neither do the children’s parents. If indignation were petroleum, Saudi Arabia would be a minor supplier. Few, however, will suffer inconvenience to end evils they do not actually see. Ah, but we talk a good show.

A great many Southerners regarded slavery with distaste, as a moral sore, Lee and Mosby among them. I might also have. Would I have given up the wealth and comfort of my plantation, suffered the opprobrium of all around me, and cast myself adrift in life from objection to slavery? Probably not. Instead I would have treated my slaves humanely, talked of the need to find some way of eventually ending the region’s peculiar institution, and enjoyed the benefits of compulsory servitude while doing nothing about it. In today’s terms, I would have been a liberal.

What would you actually have done? The world is rife with evils today. What are you doing about them? Me either. At bottom, most of us are nothing but talk.

For Southern whites, the practice of slavery could have been more easily avoided than ended. It is one thing to say, “Better that I hadn’t done it.” Having done it, the question becomes, “How do I stop doing it?” If you are a family of ten whites on a plantation of two hundred slaves, you might well fear freeing them. The blacks of the day were ignorant beyond mere illiteracy, brutal from having been raised as brutes, and just might turn vengeful if given the chance. People who have been whipped tend to reach for whips. In their place, would you have risked it?

Should any white reader object to my describing the blacks of the day as degraded and dangerous, I invite him to walk across, say, South Central Los Angeles or Southwest Washington at midnight. No, you say? But…why not? I remember the hostility when Prince Edward Country, Virginia, where my familial roots are, instituted Prince Edward Academy in the Fifties to avoid integrating. How many whites reading this send their children to black urban schools? Why not?

It is remarkable how many people, put into the shoes of people doing things they deplore, perhaps more proudly than is quite necessary, would do just the same.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.

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