Enslaved African and Yucatecan Indian labourers, on a plantation in Cuba, photographed in Matthew Karp. He lives in New York.
Slavery in America: back in the headlines
Brought to you by Curio , an Aeon partner. Edited by Sam Haselby. Southern slaveholders, like most Americans before and since, were in love with the future. Few were more rhapsodic than Southern planters. But in the s, Southern confidence in the course of US power was immense. And for antebellum Southern writers, the destiny of the US was manifestly both imperial and slaveholding. Their future was a future where slavery would continue to thrive. The black slave population would reach Later, an Alabama politician quoted another estimate that put 31 million American blacks in chains by What are we to make of these chilling estimates today?
Not so long ago, historians would have scoffed at the idea that slavery might have a serious future after the midth century. Yet scholars today are less confident than ever that slavery faced a natural or inevitable death. More than a decade of recent historical research has underlined the flexibility and dynamism of midth-century slave societies.
Aeon for Friends
The United Kingdom abolished slavery in , and France and other European powers followed after — yet, by , the Americas were home to far more slave-grown products, slave-produced profits and enslaved people than at any time in world history. In the s, at least, slave societies were not yet superseded by the rise of industrial capitalism.
They were a vital component of it, using new technology to produce unprecedented quantities of consumer goods for the rapidly growing cities and factories of western Europe and the northern US. The economic vitality of slavery was a thoroughly international phenomenon. Alongside US cotton, Cuban sugar and Brazilian coffee also flooded the prosperous global marketplace of the s. Southern newspapers and congressional speeches rang out with predictions that emancipated Haiti and Jamaica would soon be re-enslaved, so they could produce consumer goods at the volume and efficiency of Cuba and Brazil.
Some slaveholders believed that the US should conquer and re-enslave the Caribbean. Yet even those who opposed territorial expansion still agreed that the economic prospects of Latin America depended on black bondage. For US planters, this amounted to a virtual admission that coercion was an economic necessity in tropical agriculture. But given that the centre of Berlin has been rebuilt with bombast, a bombastic Holocaust memorial, sticking out like a stylised sore thumb amid the triumphalist architecture of the Brandenburg Gate and its surrounding embassies and institutions seems just about right.
By comparison: can you imagine a monument to the genocide of Native Americans or the Middle Passage at the heart of the Washington Mall? Suppose you could walk down the street and step on a reminder that this building was constructed with slave labour, or that the site was the home of a Native American tribe before it was ethnically cleansed? What we have, instead, are national museums of Native American and African American culture, the latter scheduled to open in A fashion collection is in the making, as well as a collection of artefacts belonging to the African American abolitionist Harriet Tubman; 39 objects, including her lace shawl and her prayer book, are already available.
Without such learning, we are in danger of viewing members of such cultures as permanent victims — objects instead of subjects of history.
One section of the museum is devoted to it, but the rest of the permanent collection features things such as a portrait of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, filmed interviews with Hannah Arendt, a Jewish Christmas tree, and a giant moveable head of garlic. In the same way, some Americans, no doubt, still need to see more than savage Hollywood Indians or caricatured Stepin Fetchit black people in order to get a more accurate picture of the cultures many of our ancestors tried to destroy.
I am not the first person to ask why an event that took place in Europe should assume such a prominent place in our national symbolism — particularly when our government did little to save Jews before and during the Holocaust, yet ensured that former Nazi scientists could be smuggled into the US afterwards.
The idea that it is evil to round up people and send them to gas chambers is about as close to a universal moral consensus as we get. And having a symbol of absolute evil unconsciously gives us a sort of gold standard against which most other evil actions measure only as common coin.
Nazis function conveniently as place-holders of a paradigm of evil, useful to discredit opponents as varied as Saddam Hussein, Karl Rove, and Barack Obama. It is truly terrifying to see how many pictures of Obama with a tiny moustache exist on the web. There is, of course, a large and growing body of work done by historians, cultural critics, and others that examines more specifically American forms of evil.
Few of them, however, receive the same widespread public attention or sales figures as the latest book, film or memoir about yet another aspect of the Holocaust, which lets us have our cake and eat it, too.
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We can spend our time pondering serious matters, give appropriate expression to our horror, and lean back in the confidence that it all happened over there, in another country. We no longer believe in bad seed or bad blood.
The Long History of American Slavery Reparations
Still, the idea that we are tainted by the sins of our fathers has a long and profound history. According to traditional Christianity, nothing we can do is enough to expiate them: we are all doomed to die for the fall of Adam and Eve, and salvation can come only after death. According to the Old Testament, we must serve some time for the sins of our fathers, unto the third and fourth generation.
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These traditions run deep even for those who might have rejected them, for they have a reasonable core. We all of us benefit from inheritances we did not choose and cannot change. Growing up involves deciding which part of the inheritance you want to claim as your own, and how much you have to pay for the rest of it. This is as true for nations as it is for individuals. A Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung must force emotional confrontation with the crimes it concerns, not just a rational assessment of them.
This confrontation was notably missing in the first decades of the Federal Republic of West Germany, which used reparations payments to the State of Israel as a substitute for facing up to what it meant to have caused the murder of millions. The country thus assumed forms of legal responsibility without really assuming moral responsibility until the slow, fitful turmoil of the s. Mutatis mutandis, something similar has happened in America.
Affirmative action measures are a way of taking collective responsibility for slavery and the blackface minstrel Jim Crow, but few white Americans have been forced to face just how awful slavery was. And few of us know just how long it continued, in one form or another. Truman refused.
Some degree of traumatisation must take place. Facts are insufficient, and numbers often make them worse. This is why the violent scenes in Django Unchained were absolutely necessary. As both Tarantino and his black stars have said, real slavery was a thousand times worse than what they showed in the film. Tarantino edited out parts of the two most brutal scenes, in which men are torn apart by fellow slaves or packs of dogs, because early audiences found them too traumatic.
They want to keep it intellectual. As Gates notes, many of his students have become inured to the horror of slavery. However, one thing Tarantino does know well is the history of film.
Compare and Contract Slavery Topics
Film directors of that period — often European refugees such as Fritz Lang or Billy Wilder, as Tarantino pointed out — had no compunction about making war movies that were also exciting, entertaining, and even funny. Tarantino did the same. For all his erudition, the film had tapped into buried emotions that had moved and motivated him for decades. In a recent interview for Die Zeit , Tarantino said he was always being asked what Germans thought of Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino is not the first American director to follow a major film about the Nazis with a film about American slavery.
Both are means for sending a message that Nazism should not be used to end discussions about evil but to begin them, and that American crimes deserve as hard a look as any other. In Django Unchained , Tarantino took it one step further than Spielberg in Amistad , by making the only decent white person in the film a German. And he rubs our noses in our own prejudices by using Christoph Waltz, the actor he cast to play the most memorable SS officer in film history, to be the only white person in Django who is viscerally revolted by American slavery.
While filming Inglourious Basterds , he lived in Berlin for half a year, which is long enough to get a sense of how Germans keep their awful past firmly in the present consciousness. If there were a Nuremberg trial, he says in the same interview, then D W Griffith, the director of The Birth of a Nation — the silent film that inspired the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan — would be judged guilty of war crimes. Tarantino has claimed that his great-grandfather was a Confederate general, which suggests that in making this film he was following in the footsteps of two generations of Germans and confronting ancestral evil.
They then concluded that Tarantino had used the word provocatively to promote his film. Were Americans guilty of crimes that were as evil as those of the Nazis — and if so, what should we do about it today? Inglourious Basterds features two Nazis who are appealing, and very differently so. This is as it should be, if we are ever to understand how all kinds of ordinary, and even appealing, people commit murder, whether in Majdanek or in Mississippi. But it is equally crucial that we get our heroes right, too. Heroes close the gap between the ought and the is.
They show us that it is not only possible to use our freedom to stand against injustice, but that some people have actually done so.
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