Wednesday, May 17, 2017

On Slaveowners

In an introduction for an anniversary edition of The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron wrote about his grandmother and the first time he learned that this woman, who had been a child during the Civil War and had witnessed Sherman's March, had once owned slaves. This was in the 1930s, and he was amazed that right before him, in the flesh, was this relic of a long ancient history.

I never had anything quite like that in my childhood, although I did come close once. A white elementary-school teacher who had grown up in Georgia in the 1950s and '60s told us a devastating story about how she once demanded that a black person take a seat in the back of the bus so she and her white friend could take seats in the front. As someone who only heard stories about white racist ogres, the story was surprising for two reasons. One, my elementary-school teacher was a warm, affectionate woman. Second, in her telling, the other white passengers on the bus were disgusted by her behavior, and the white bus driver gave her an ugly look that she would never forget. Of course, those passengers still let the cruelty to happen. No one got off the bus in protest. The lived experience of segregation was more complex than what we had been taught up to that point.

I haven't read that much history about slavery, but what little I've read suggests that the emotional havoc the system enacted on white slaveholders as well as on black slaves is difficult to sort out. Eighteen fifty America is a foreign country with its own codes of conduct. The Romanian movie Aferim! (Radu Jude, 2015), which tells the story of a bounty hunter who hunts down a slave and returns him to a boyar gets at the problem. How do people with a conscience function in a society in which moral codes are so different? What does morality in the past mean? A Southern lady who abuses a house slave in 1850 America is a product of her time. A housewife who abuses her Filipino nanny in 2017 is a psychopath.

The truth is, of course, that there are more slaves alive in the world than there have ever been at any other point in human history. Some of those slaves helped build NYU's satellite campus in Dubai. Some of them picked the oranges I buy at Safeway. And some of them are caught in situations you don't even think about. Alex Tizon describes his life with his parents' slave Lola who had been gifted to his mother by his grandfather in the Phillipines in 1942. When the family emigrated to the U.S., they took Lola with them. She remained a slave until Tizon's mother's death in 1999. She lived with Tizon for the remaining 12 years of her life.

The article is being talked about everywhere on earth. It's a shame that Tizon did not live long enough to see it make print. He died less than two months ago. I won't go into any details about the article, and I can't even begin to touch on what it says about the psychology of a slave. But if we try to figure out what the hell went on in the head of a Mississippi slaveowner in the 1850s, we can see some hints in the story of Tizon's mother. Here's the first chilling moment. 

One day during the war Lieutenant Tom came home and caught my mother in a lie -- something to do with a boy she wasn't supposed to talk to. Tom, furious, ordered her to "stand at the table." Mom cowered with Lola in a corner. Then, in a quivering voice, she told her father that Lola would take her punishment. Lola looked at Mom pleadingly, then without a word walked to the dining table and held on to the edge. Tom raised the belt and delivered 12 lashes, punctuating each one with a word. You. Do. Not. Lie. To. You. Do. Not. Lie. To. Me. Lola made no sound. 
My mother, in recounting this story late in her life, delighted in the outrageousness of it, her tone seeming to say, Can you believe I did that? When I brought it up with Lola, she asked to hear Mom's version. She listened intently, eyes lowered, and afterward she looked at me with sadness and said simply, "Yes. It was like that."
Tizon's mother doesn't sound all that different from a grown woman who laughs off something terrible and traumatic she did to her younger sibling. I've met many such people.

But there is another side to Tizon's mother. Lower down:
She'd come to America and fought for respect as both a woman and an immigrant physician. She'd worked for two decades at Fairview Training Center, in Salem, a state institutions for the developmentally disabled. The irony: She tended to underdogs most of her professional life. They worshipped her. Female colleagues became close friends. They did silly, girly things together -- shoe shopping, throwing dress-up parties at one another's homes, exchanging gag gifts like penis-shaped soaps and calendars of half-naked men, all while laughing hysterically. Looking through their party pictures reminded me that Mom had a life and an identity apart from the family and Lola. Of course.
Talk of but not about your sins. Keep the evil you do contained to a specific part of your life. Laugh at the weak. I doubt the slaveowners of the past were any different.

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