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.

3 thoughts on “The Dark Things We Won’t Admit

  1. That’s a fascinating point. So in that mindset I’m now thinking…maybe it’s not so much that I feel it’s the ‘right’ thing to do to free my family (that would imply that on some level I think it’s wrong to keep them enslaved while I’m alive, which I must not or I wouldn’t do it), it’s that I the value they have to me, while still the value of property, is something very personal that I can’t trust anyone else to properly respect.

    In a similar way, I might imagine wishing I could ‘set free’ my cherished classic car…not because I think the car would gain any benefit from that (because who cares what a car wants, that’s really not the point), but because I don’t want anyone else who might not value it the way I do to have the chance to drive it around and repaint it some horrible color. I don’t want anyone else to have this!

    Maybe emancipating your slaves is just what you do because it’s not socially acceptable to have them buried with you in your giant fancy tomb to serve you for all eternity.

  2. This makes a weird and twisted sense to me. I mean, we already have families where the parents (or one parent) treats the children like property, tries to control them, doesn’t ever want to stop being in charge of them, or let them grow to independence. Slavery would just make that easy. Power is corrupting. The power to treat another person like a thing, a mindless object that you can abuse or treat however you wish, is especially corrupting. Fred Clark also did a good piece on how suppressing our good and natural empathy to others (because they are slaves/POC) can paradoxically result in much greater evil. Deep down, oppressors can’t completely silence their consciences about what they’re doing, so they act even more brutally.

  3. I think we have to make a distinction between people who freed their slaves in their wills and people who freed their slaves during their own lifetimes. At the very best, the former were saying “slavery is a bad thing but it’s so nice for me so I’ll do something about it once it won’t bother me any more.” The latter group was willing to pay a personal price, whatever their motivations.

    You know the thing that bothered me the most about Elias’s will? The way he knew so many individual people, who he could name and describe and even evaluate morally (the contingencies about Angeline’s future are pretty amazing), who he thought of not as parts of a lump but as separate people, and still not have a twinge about enslaving.

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