When you begin to study abolitionism, you may find that certain things were not taught to you in school. You’ve probably heard that Abraham Lincoln “freed the slaves.” That’s about as far as mainstream education on the history of American slavery goes. It’s certainly superficial and shallow, despite the essential role that slavery had in forming the United States. I mean, the United States quite literally would not exist if millions of men and women were not enslaved and forced to build it. This topic is American history, in full, but it’s taught as a mere footnote.
If you ask people about “wage slavery” in the United States, then, many will treat the idea as if it is a modern invention. As if Josef Stalin imported the idea during middle of the Cold War. You’d probably never learn that wage slavery was a common topic alongside chattel slavery in the 18th century. Individuals on both sides of the slavery debate, abolitionists and slaveholders both, used the existence of wage slavery and the concept of wage slavery to bolster their positions. Abolitionists, as you might expect, said wage slavery was merely an alternate form of enslavement. Slaveholders, meanwhile, said wage slavery was so bad that being owned as chattel was better.
Being forced to sell yourself for wages was not viewed highly by anyone. It was also at this point in time that we began to see the transition from the artisan, the individual laborer, craftsman or apprentice with some autonomy, to the wage employee. In a world of poverty and work a major quality of life issue was who controlled that work. Indeed, we’re still in a world of poverty and work. And the ability to control your own work versus being forced to sell your labor is still a major element of our quality of life – this is why self-employed adults are significantly more satisfied with their jobs than other workers, despite increased financial stress and similar incomes. We’re still forced to sell our labor, but the element of control, the difference between the 18th century artisan and the wage slave, significantly impacts our happiness. Nothing has changed.
For many, nothing has changed when it comes to chattel slavery either. Margaret Biser of Vox used to give plantation tours. She wrote a bit about her experiences and the outrageous things people used to say. It should be eye opening for those who think racism – the kind of blatant, malignant racism that manifests as an actual support for chattel slavery – does not exist any more.
Well, it does.
Biser wrote that she would “often meet visitors who had earnest but deep misunderstandings about the nature of American slavery” and that “You could tell from the questions — and, not less importantly, from the body language — that the people asking were genuinely ignorant of this part of the country’s history.” I believe most Americans have deep misunderstandings about the nature of American slavery, but what Biser related is the extreme example. We’re talking about people who were unsure if slaves volunteered to be slaves. For these people, it isn’t just a misunderstanding. It’s an almost complete absence of knowledge. These are people who never learned about slavery in the first place. From that point, it becomes almost impossible to discuss relationships between chattel slavery and wage slavery.
Then there are the people who still believe, as did slaveholders in the 18th century, that slavery was a benevolent institution. Biser wrote about people who asked if slaves “appreciated” the “care” they received from their mistresses. The myth of the “fortunate” house slave was prevalent, according to Biser. People didn’t understand why slaves who were not beaten wanted to escape. Even the abuse of slaves is brought into dispute; “at other times the asker was using it to suggest that stories of abuse, suffering, and exploitation under slavery were just outliers or exaggerations.”
What’s the deal with people who, in 2015, still support and apologize for chattel slavery? Biser said it might have to do with their own perceptions of themselves:
Why these misconceptions are so prevalent is a fair question. Sometimes guests were just repeating ideas they’d heard in school or from family. They were only somewhat invested in those ideas personally, and they were open to hearing new perspectives (especially when backed up by historical data).
In many other cases, however, justifications of slavery seemed primarily like an attempt by white Americans to avoid feelings of guilt for the past. After all, for many people, beliefs about one’s ancestors reflect one’s beliefs about oneself. We don’t want our ancestors to have done bad things because we don’t want to think of ourselves as being bad people. These slavery apologists were less invested in defending slavery per se than in defending slaveowners, and they weren’t defending slaveowners so much as themselves.
We’re looking at cognitive dissonance, then. There is a belief or set of beliefs these persons hold, beliefs related to themselves and which they associate with themselves, that they are forced to reconcile with their self-image of a “good” person. Biser relates this to a link with their ancestors, some of whom may have been slaveholders. However, I suspect it has more to do with their own beliefs in the existing, modern context. It isn’t just a desire to absolve their slaveholding ancestors, but a desire to absolve themselves. They’re attempting to absolve themselves from the violence inherent in their own modern racist beliefs.
You see, the individuals who apologize for slavery are not merely reflecting back and excusing an institution that has ceased to exist. They tend to share the same beliefs, prejudices and opinions as supporters of slavery did. This includes modern reinventions of old pro-slavery tropes: slaves are lazy/black people seek welfare, slaves are brutes/black people are criminals, slaves are unintelligent/black people have low IQs. And while bare-faced chattel slavery may have ended, alternate forms of slavery have been expanded and instituted in its place. This is why you will find that those who defend prisons and harsh punishments most vigorously overlap with people who apologize for slavery.
In the recent controversy over the Confederate Battle Flag, we’ve seen people vigorously defend a symbol of no value whatsoever, a symbol associated most strongly in the public mind with chattel slavery. This has been an easy symbol to oppose, because it has held very little mainstream value in American culture. The public could also oppose the American flag on the exact same basis – it is just as strongly associated with hatred as the Battle Flag – but it is too entrenched in US culture. Thus, we find people condemning the Battle Flag as a hateful symbol using the same apologetic arguments for the US flag.
In Boston, “vandals” spray-painted “Black Lives Matter” on a statute of Christopher Columbus. WCVB, local Boston news, described the statue as “an iconic statue of Christopher Columbus.” According to WCVB, this left behind “a lot of questions and frustration,” as well as “surprise and sadness.” This is typical in our media. It presents itself as an unbiased reporting of the facts, but takes a clear position against the act: it is condemned as “vandalism” and “defacement,” the statue is good, it is “iconic,” and the only people interviewed are those who are supposedly “sad.” We don’t hear from anyone who would support the act (for example, you, me, or millions of Americans). In fact, the act itself is presented as some kind of inexplicable mystery: “It’s not clear who is behind the vandalism, or why it surfaced in Boston, but Brady doubts it’s part of some organized effort.” They selected an interviewee to claim it was “kids trying to fool around.”
In fact, it is clear who is behind it. It was someone who opposes racism and slavery. It’s also a part of an organized effort, though it may not be a centralized or hierarchical effort. We can say with some confidence that it is a part of the Black Lives Matter movement, because that is what was painted on the statue. Indeed, Christopher Columbus was someone for whom black lives did not matter. Columbus was single-handedly responsible for a great deal of genocide and slavery in the Americas. Opposing the glorification of Christopher Columbus is just as important and consistent as opposing the Battle Flag, or any Confederate monuments.
Many, perhaps most, who read Biser’s accounts of plantation tours will experience disbelief, amusement or outrage. The kinds of people who apologize for chattel slavery are deviant. As popular as those opinions remain, they are not opinions that are socially acceptable. But look at the Columbus statue “vandalism” – here we have the exact same effect.
Just as people who identify with the Battle Flag excuse it, or people who identify with chattel slavery apologize for it, people who associate themselves with the genocidal slave-trader Christopher Columbus defend his memory. An attack on Columbus is taken personally – it creates cognitive dissonance and is perceived as an attack on modern Americans. Except unlike the Battle Flag or chattel slavery, we’re now in the realm of the American mainstream. Holidays like Columbus Day still exist: this is the institutional, state-sponsored glorification of a man who was considered to be perpetuating an incredible evil even by his own contemporaries and shipmates. We’re talking about someone who was offensive even to Queen Isabella I.
How can we ever address the forms of slavery that still exist in the United States, when we’re surrounded by an almost absolute, institutional denial of historical chattel slavery? Well, there is good news – we are making progress. The “vandalism” is an example of this; individuals are learning that they have a legitimate right to attack racism. This includes mainstream racism, be it the glorification of the Battle Flag or Christopher Columbus. The state drags its feet, as does the media; the police arrested Bree Newsome for removing a Battle Flag, the media nips at the heels of people who strike at racist symbols.
But we have action. It’s the same action that ended chattel slavery – it will be the same action that stamps out the final remnants of racism and slavery. Action is going to upset people. It is going to make them angry. We should prepare ourselves for this, because the actions we need to take go quite a bit beyond merely spray-painting a monument.