The Dark Things We Won’t Admit

As I’ve been thinking about Elias Napier, I’ve had a really hard time with the fact that he kept his grandchildren enslaved. I don’t know why, out of everything I’ve read, that’s just the place I can’t get to, but that’s the place I can’t get to. Your own grandchildren.

I thought a lot about that this weekend.

I think one of the things that makes it hard to understand slavery is that we start from a position of slavery being evil and then the humps we have to overcome are things like “How could these people who I love do this evil thing?” and then we get stuck with these untrue but heartfelt beliefs that it wasn’t really that bad or that our slave-owning ancestors were the good ones or that they just didn’t know better. And all of those things are, sadly, demonstrably untrue.

Here’s the truth, though: slavery was awesome for the enslavers. That’s why it persisted, even flourished. That’s why men who didn’t own slaves fought for the right to own slaves.

Once we admit that owning people was awesome, we can start being honest about all the corrupting ways it was. All the labor around the house you didn’t have to do. All the labor on the farm you didn’t have to do. All the “sex” (what we would call rape) you could have or watch others having.

I mean, just think about all the darker impulses we have. Say you have a fourteen year old at your house who refuses to do the dishes. You may feel an impulse to beat the shit out of her, but you do not, because it’s wrong. But let’s be honest, in the moment, it would feel good to smack her around. Later, yes, you might feel terrible. But in the moment?

Now think of all the people who watch sports and, when the athletes express displeasure, complain because “They knew what they were getting into” or “look at how much money they make” as if there’s some level of recompense that makes watching someone’s bodily destruction your right.

Is the pleasure of the slaver really that foreign to us?

Your enslaved child will never grow up and move away. No matter how old he or she gets, they have to follow your guidance. Your enslaved grandchildren can never be too busy for you. Your enslaved family has to love you (or fake it so well you can ignore that it’s fake) in ways your free family doesn’t.

We’re supposed to understand Elias as generous or good for freeing his family at his death, but the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the value they had for him was so private, so personal, that he could not believe they retained that value after his death. Setting them free in a way kept them his and his alone. No one else could have them like he did.

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