Point Comfort, VA
Point Comfort, Virginia

400 years ago, in August of 1619, Virginia colonists purchased “some twenty and odd” enslaved Africans from English pirates, who had stolen the Africans from Portuguese slavers off the coast of Mexico. That documented transaction marked the beginning of the slave trade in what was to become the United States of America.

This month, the New York Times Magazine launched an initiative called the 1619 Project to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the event. After selling out issues of the 1619 Project, the Times made 7,000 more copies available. They sold out in a day.

I’ve spent some time this month reading some of the literary works created for the 1619 Project and listening to historians discussing how the institution of slavery affected the United States economically, politically, legally, and socially, what it was like for people living in slavery, and the lingering effects on us all. From what I have seen in the news, reaction to the 1619 Project has been mostly positive, but there has been a backlash in predictable quarters.

Slavery came into existence alongside civilization, and every ancient civilization used slaves. War and piracy were the most common ways to acquire slaves, but committing a crime, even the inability to pay a debt, could end in enslavement. The word “slave” is derived from the ethnonym Slav.  So many Slavs were captured and enslaved during medieval wars that their name became synonymous with enslavement. Slavery flourished throughout history. Although illegal in every country today, forms of slavery survive in human trafficking, forced marriages, and forced labor, especially targeting women and children.

Why is the American experience of slavery unique?

  • The Declaration of Independence declared the equality of all, yet the Constitution codified slavery (Article 1, Section 2; Article 1, Section 9, Paragraph 1; Article 4, Section 2).
  • By the beginning of the Civil War, the United States was the most powerful slave-holding society on earth.  Four million enslaved human beings lived in the South.
  • While other advanced nations (Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands) had peacefully abolished slavery or were doing so, the United States’ slave-holding states doubled down against the growing abolitionist movement.  Americans fought a bloody four-year civil war in order to get rid of slavery.
  • American slavery was racially defined, perpetual and inheritable.  The default: an African slave in America was a slave for life; by law, a child of an African slave woman inherited her slave status, regardless of the race or status of the father.
  • Southern clergy defended slavery using selected biblical texts.  To attack slavery was “to attack the Bible and the Word of God”, and because the New Testament did not expressly forbid slavery, that meant it was not prohibited.
  • The positive birthrate of the enslaved population was unique to American slavery. Forced reproduction eliminated the cost of purchase and filled labor shortages after the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves passed in 1807. “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital.” (Thomas Jefferson to John Wayles Eppes, June 30, 1820).

One might say that America perfected the institution of slavery.

Smith's Plantation, Beaufort, SC
Library of Congress:  Five Generations on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, SC, 1862

Some of my reading, viewing, and listening in conjunction with the 1619 Project:

1. The 1965 James Baldwin-William F. Buckley debate at the University of Cambridge. Baldwin and Buckley debated the question “Has the American dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFeoS41xe7w

2. PBS News Hour discussion of slavery and the sugar trade.  https://watch.opb.org/video/rethinking-history-1566507238/

3. June 2014 Atlantic Magazine article by Ta Nehisi Coates.   While I do not agree with Coates on reparations, his story is powerful and moving.  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/

4. Colson Whitehead’s recent novel “The Nickel Boys,” a historical novel based on the infamous Dozier School for Boys in Florida.  Beautifully written, painful to read, unforgettable.  More information on Dozier: https://www.npr.org/2012/10/15/162941770/floridas-dozier-school-for-boys-a-true-horror-story

5. Fascinating Atlantic Magazine article (Sep 2019):  Deconstructing Clarence Thomas by Michael O’Donnell, a review of The Enigma of Clarence Thomas by Corey Robin.  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/09/deconstructing-clarence-thomas/594775/  “Thomas ‘sees something of value in the social worlds of slavery and Jim Crow,’ not because he endorses bondage but because he believes that under those regimes African Americans developed virtues of independence and habits of responsibility, practices of self-control and institutions of patriarchal self-help, that enabled them to survive and sometimes flourish.”

You have to be careful when you thrash the natives

SiegeOfKrishnapurJ. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, winner of the 1973 Mann Booker Prize, is a historical novel, satirical, witty, tragic and often brutal.  It is a fictional re-telling of the siege of the British colonial garrison (The Residency) in the city of Lucknow, India, during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.  The book is based on the letters, diaries and eye-witness accounts of British civilians and soldiers crowded into the Residency, trapped, cut off from all relief, and fending off repeated Sepoy attacks for months.

While the novel is, above all, a condemnation of British rule of India, the story is told entirely from the British colonialists’ perspective, mainly because, as Pankaj Mishra suggests in his superb introduction, Farrell’s decision not to include fully developed Indian characters reflected his own experience in India:

The diaries he kept during his research trip to India in 1971 reveal that he was bewildered, even ‘defeated,’ by the strangeness of the people and the landscape. Rather than invent some implausible Indian characters, Farrell confined himself to describing the insular British and their claim to rule justly a country they, like Farrell, didn’t, or couldn’t, much understand.

Farrell’s story of the siege is sometimes comic, sometimes heartbreaking, often both.  In spite of their suffering, the British insisted on maintaining their social rituals and class demarcations to the point of absurdity.  In the end, Victorian manners and morality broke down in the face of starvation, the murderous heat, monsoon rains, plagues of insects, the outbreak of cholera, and the bloody Sepoy attacks.

Siege of Lucknow1
Ruins of the Lucknow Residency

I could not help admiring their courage, at the same time wondering at their lack of understanding or feeling for the people they ruled.  At one point in the book, before the Sepoy rebellion, young infantry ensign Harry Dunstaple explains to George Fleury, a young traveler just arrived from England, about the character of the natives, particularly the rich ones: “their sons were brought up in an effeminate, luxurious manner. Their health was ruined by eating sickly sweetmeats and indulging in other weakening behaviour. . . You have to be careful thrashing a Hindu, George, because they have very weak chests and you can kill them.”

Indeed, James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin, uncomfortably insightful for his time and reflecting on his own dubious actions in the service of Empire, wrote in his diary of the hundreds of native servants that waited upon him in his mansion in Calcutta:

One moves among them with perfect indifference, treating them not as dogs, because in that case one would whistle to them and pat them, but as machines with which one can have no communion or sympathy.  When the passions of fear and hatred are grafted on this indifference, the result is frightful; an absolute callousness as to the sufferings of the objects of those passions.

A frightful result.  The Siege of Krishnapur tells its fateful tale all too well right to the final, gripping scenes of the desperate last stand of the besieged.  I put the book down in wonder at Farrell’s creation, such a story of human grandeur and human folly ringing true on every page. Will we ever learn, will we ever change.

A curious coincidence – after reading The Siege of Krishnapur I came across a recent Washington Post editorial that reviewed and rebutted an article titled “The Case for Colonialism,” written by a political scientist at Portland State University and published in an academic journal.  “The Case for Colonialism” suggested that Western colonialism was not necessarily harmful to the people of colonized countries, but was “both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate” in many countries.  Apparently there was quite a backlash to the article, including “credible threats of violence” to the journal editor.   The article was removed from the journal’s website.  Perhaps I have my answer.


Why Don’t We Learn From History?

“History is economics in action.”  Karl Marx

Requiem for The American Deam

Recently, I stumbled upon a fascinating documentary: “Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky and the Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power” (available on Netflix and Amazon streaming video). The film is a series of interviews of Chomsky conducted over four years and released in 2015.  Chomsky’s focus in the film is economic inequality and its corrosive effects on society and democracy.

The interviews are structured around 10 economic and political principles associated with the concentration of wealth and power.  I am aware that Chomsky is widely considered a radical leftist by some, but I do believe he is right about the necessity and role of activism, especially now.  In Requiem, Chomsky articulates his views on the concentration of wealth and power in a manner that is coherent and accessible to the economics-challenged like myself.

He begins with Principle No. 1: Reduce Democracy. He discusses James Madison’s views and efforts in framing the Constitution.  Madison was a true believer in democracy, but he also worried about “an excess of democracy.” He felt that our system should be designed so that power resides in the hands of the wealthy, because they “are the more responsible set of men.”

In the constitutional debates of 1787, Madison stated that “The major concern of the society has to be to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.”  In other words, if everybody has an equal vote, the majority of the poor will naturally come together to take away the property of the rich minority.  This concern, says Chomsky, goes all the way back to Aristotle, who believed democracy to be the superior system of government, but who pointed out the same “flaw” as Madison, that on an equal footing, the poor majority would seek to take away the wealth of the rich minority.  But Madison and Aristotle had opposite solutions: Aristotle proposed trying to reduce inequality; Madison proposed reducing democracy.  In the end, the founding fathers placed the most power in the hands of the Senate – which was not an elected body in those times.  Senators were selected from the wealthy by state legislatures.

From that beginning, Chomsky walks us through U.S. history, the cycles of progress and regression, and the constant tension between the Aristotlean and Madisonian tendencies.  It is fascinating stuff.  At one point while watching the film, I was struck by Chomsky’s comment that we should not be at all surprised by the current political and economic landscape.  That comment reminded me of the observations of two historians, B.H. Liddell Hart and Will Durant.

Liddell Hart was primarily a military historian, but in his book Why Don’t We Learn From History?, he contemplates broader themes as well as “the familiar string of political confidence tricks, repeated all down the ages – yet they rarely fail to take in a fresh generation.”

Truth is a spiral staircase. What looks true on one level may not be true on the next higher level. A complete vision must extend vertically as well as horizontally – not only seeing the parts in relation to one another but embracing the different planes.

History provides that complete vision.

Durant is more specific. He devotes an entire chapter to Economics and History in his 1968 book The Lessons of History and shows us how concentration of wealth is a recurring and natural cycle.

“Since practical ability differs from person to person, the majority of such abilities, in nearly all societies, is gathered in a minority of men.  The concentration of wealth is a natural result of this concentration of ability.”  The freedoms of democracy accelerate the rate of concentration.  In 1968, Durant wrote “the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest is now greater than at any time since Imperial plutocratic Rome.”  I wonder what he would say today.

According to Durant, when the disparity widens to a point of critical instability, pressure is relieved in one of two ways: by legislation redistributing wealth or by revolution distributing poverty.  He provides historical examples: Solon’s redistribution of wealth in 597 B.C. Athens (one of Solon’s methods was establishing an income tax whereby the rich paid taxes twelve times that of the poor),  Rome’s hundred years of class and civil war, the Reformation, the French Revolution, and Durant’s final example (which Chomsky also discusses in “Requiem”):

“The government of the United States, in 1933-52 and 1960-65, followed Solon’s peaceful methods, and accomplished a moderate and pacifying redistribution. Perhaps someone had studied history. The upper classes in America cursed, complied, and resumed the concentration of wealth.”

There is no Why


I have been watching Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust epic Shoah over the last few days. This film has been on my “to watch” list for many years, but I had never set aside the time – I knew it would be lengthy and I knew it would be grim viewing.

“Why?” one might ask. Why on earth subject myself to 9 1/2 hours of a documentary film about such an awful event – we’ve all seen countless movies, documentaries, photos, read novels and histories about it. We know it happened (well, those of us who value documented history and truth do). Why revisit something so depressing, especially now, when we are reeling from horrific and frightening events of the last few weeks?

It was precisely that – our new reality.  Paris, San Bernardino, a modern exodus (and its xenophobic backlash) of people fleeing from a barbarism that defies belief. I hear the empty political rhetoric, see the disturbing images flashed endlessly by the media, and ask myself why and how can these things be happening in the 21st Century – is there some flaw in human evolution? Have we forgotten so soon how this kind of thing can end?

Even if only for a glimmer of understanding of troubled times, I always turn to history, to the words, memories, and deeds of those who lived it. So I began watching Shoah, an account of a turning point in history – a new abyss of savagery into which men can be led by an ideology of hate and exclusion.

Claude Lanzmann a French Jewish filmmaker and journalist, conceived of the Shoah project in 1973 (“shoah” is the Hebrew word for catastrophe or destruction, and is the term used by Jews since the early 1940’s for the destruction of the European Jews). In his autobiography Lanzmann writes, “There is no film about the Shoah, no film that takes in what happened in all its magnitude, no film that shows it from our point of view . . . What was most important was what was missing – death in the gas chambers, from which no one had returned to report.” He completed the film in 1985 and it was shown to the world.

Shoah2Shoah is a monumental work of oral history. Lanzmann determined from the beginning to use no archival films or photos, no views or summaries of experts (with one exception, which was masterful). The only people on camera, other than Lanzmann himself and a translator, would be surviving victims, perpetrators, and bystander witnesses. The film is visually compelling and haunting. The images we see are views and landscapes filmed by Lanzmann, quiet rural places, green fields, snow falling in beautiful forests, sleepy towns and train stations. As we watch, we hear the voices of the speakers narrating what had happened in these places, with the camera slowly moving back and forth from the placid scenes to the faces of the narrators. The effect is powerful, stunning in an inexplicable way – because of all that we do not see.

The survivors interviewed by Lanzmann are unforgettable – Abraham Bomba, a barber in Israel at the time Lanzmann was filming, who describes cutting the hair of women before they entered the gas chamber, Filip Muller, a Czech Jew forced to aid in the disposal of victims of the gas chambers, Rudolf Vrba, who tried unsuccessfully to organize an uprising in Auschwitz. It was very difficult for me at first to reconcile the calm and stoic manner of these survivors with the unbelievable events they were describing. They seemed almost emotionless as they began their stories – Vrba in particular would at times briefly reveal a sardonic sense of humor. But as Lanzmann kept returning to them throughout the hours of the film, I began to understand.

For me, the most memorable on-camera contributor was Lanzman’s one exception – his interview with Raul Hilberg, historian and author of The Destruction of the European Jews (brief clip). In one segment of the interviews, Hilberg, whose work focused on the bureaucratic details and the implementation of the “Final Solution,” (how obscene, those two bland words) held an original document in his hands, a one-page railway schedule, filled with normal railway terms, dates, times, routings and re-routings of trains for what might be the transport of goods, livestock, special trains for group vacationers, excursions, seasonal laborers, ordinary, commonplace, part of the country’s public and commercial rail system. As Hilberg methodically decodes the schedule, you understand – the “special” trains were the death trains, loading up at some village, unloading at a death camp, being re-routed to another town, loading up again, over and over. It was chilling.

“To be human,” wrote Irving Howe, “meant to be unequipped to grapple with the Holocaust.” And therein lies the difficulty and the danger.

I finished the film. But it is not finished with me. My question “why” is unanswered, will always be unanswered – we are unequipped. In Primo Levi’s memoir of Auschwitz, he remembers how, suffering from thirst, he grabbed an icicle through the window of his cell. An SS guard knocked it out of his hand. “Why?” Levi asked. The guard responded, “Hier ist kein warum.”

Here there is no why.