“That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. . . . The best thing…, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing.” (From “Beloved,” by Toni Morison)
Recent televised news accounts of an Ethiopian maid being openly dragged through the streets of Beirut Lebanon, before later committing suicide, reminded me of the ugly face of slavery- like in Mauritania, today- that no one sees or wants to see, far beyond the earthly imaginations of decent thinking, law-abiding human beings.
The news accounts suggested that the woman was a victim of the systematic abuse and brutality of darker skinned Middle Eastern women, mostly domestic workers from Africa and Asia. The stories seemed consistent with contemporary beliefs that suicide often stems from some skewed rationale in coping with various mental stresses. Earlier beliefs even deemed suicides as sinful and, according to some interpretations, the work of the devil or a blatant refusal to accept one’s God-given station in life, even a slave’s.
An Ethical Paradox?
However, based on even earlier research I’ve come across, including 1st-, 2nd- and 3rd-person slave narratives, many Africans, captured and brought to America as slaves, strongly believed that suicide was one of the honorable means to escape slavery’s brutality. For them, suicide was merely the beginning of some noble journey back to their “homeland” to be with their ancestors.
Regardless of the Ethiopian maid’s motivation, the Beirut images were particularly disturbing to me, in view of America’s politicized right-wing assaults on a wide range of public issues associated with women’s rights, from reproductive rights to equal pay, as well the much documented violence against women in other areas around the globe. They were also disturbing because, from being stationed long-term in the Mediterranean Basin some 45 years ago, I still recall Beirut as a picturesque city of cross-cultural cooperation between Muslims and Christians, with a fabled past and playful future, as evidenced by its then groovy night life and fabulous cuisine.
In spite of the seemingly universal rejection of the idea that human bondage still exist, today, the invisible face of slavery has not changed. Disgusting intercultural expressions remain an irrefutable fact. They are ugly… abdominal… vulgar… and, repulsive. The enslavement of human beings is a crude trade- barbarous, ungodly and certainly immoral by anyone’s standard, in my opinion.
Yet, it has flowed effortlessly like a mountain river, down through the ages and melting snow caps of nearly every continent in the world, today. For some, contemporary slavery is an envisioned solution to some perceived problem, real or imaginary. For others, it’s decidedly criminal but a worth-the-risk calculation, teetering on the edges of what’s legal, often concealed within the shadowy underbelly of personal profit, like the beefed up coffers from spiraling tourism revenue.
According to Cincinnati, Ohio’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, slavery anywhere is “…an inhuman perversion of a simple economic principle: the best way to maximize profits is by minimizing the cost of labor. In today’s global economy, the seemingly inexhaustible demand for cheap goods and services has created a vast, largely invisible market for easily replenished supplies of men, women and children who are forced to work against their will, for little or no pay, and under constant threat of violence or intimidation.”
Thus, such is the “justified” face of slavery, today. Such was the rationale of yesteryear.
Perhaps it’s one of the reasons why the raw, obscene side of slavery’s chronicles remains buried deep within the reams and reams of the “missing pages” to classroom history books, as well as deep recesses of the mind and soul of societies continuing to scoff at the whole idea.
The way I see it, perhaps none of the slavery’s moral dilemmas were more perplexing than the state of mind a loving mother must have been in before arriving at the irreversible decision to murder her children, rather than expose them to the injurious and beastly side of an existence in human bondage. Imagine: A mother, albeit slave, who defies powerful maternal instincts and decidedly kills the child birthed, and bonded with, by her.
Criminal, you say? Morally justifiable? I say it’s situational irony, pure and simple. The answer lies deep within us all, not just the courts or competing religions of the world.
Of course, the legal definition of “murder” further complicates the issue, as with the mitigating circumstances behind the act itself, allowing for an individual to be found guilty of the lesser crime of manslaughter or excluded within various doctrines of self-defense. This was the legal landscape in Colonial America, before the Civil War (1861-1865), when the rights of women and slaves were profoundly limited.
In the Shadows of “Beloved”
About 25 years ago, a popular 324-page novel was published by an esteemed African-American female writer, Toni Morrison, under the title of “Beloved” (Alfred Knopf, publisher, 1987). The novel’s setting was after the Civil War, stemming from a story involving an escaped female slave, not far from where I was born in Kentucky. She had escaped the horrors of slavery by fleeing with her family to Ohio. Ms. Morrison later won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the story which was later modified within a film production. It became one of the most studied and analyzed narratives on college campuses, within book clubs and writing workshops and, for a spell, within the fading dinner-table conversations of American households.
While the narrative was fictionalized, I was already aware of the realities of infanticide when I first saw the film versions; but I didn’t realize the plot stemmed from a popularized runaway slave-trial. Having not yet read the book, I didn’t equate the movie to the trial’s child-murder dynamics, until much later. In fact, for me, the movie’s opening scenes were downright confusing.
I knew it had something to do with ghosts, possibly of dead children; but, the film’s excursion into the psychological impact of slavery’s infanticide didn’t hit me until I later read another book, called “Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder from the Old South” (Steven Weisenburger, Published by Hill and Wang, A Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pages, 1998). I only vaguely recalled from Greek Mythology a related, fictitious Medea and her revengeful killing of two sons.
Frankly, the main reason I picked up the book had more to do with its front cover’s portrait (The Modern Medea, detailed by Thomas S. Noble, in 1867) which had appeared in newspapers and the Harper’s Weekly Magazine, in 1867. I couldn’t place exactly where I had seen the portrait. Yet, its striking pose of a defiant black woman with a dead child laying face-up, at her feet, was compelling. Another child clinged to the mother’s tattered dress, as armed white slave catchers confronted her, frozen in time by the shocking scene before them. I’m still not sure where I first saw the portrait, but the image seems to have lingered for a lifetime.
The book’s author was a professor of English at the University of Kentucky. That, coupled with the book cover’s marketing design, was gripping enough to convince me that this individual may have intimately understood the astonishing Ohio child-murder trial, as well as the bizarre cultural and legal landscape surrounding it, which likely gave flight to Toni Morrison’s imagination. In fact, according to “Modern Medea’s” cover, the author was led to researching and writing the book because of Toni Morrison’s ”Beloved.”
“Modern Medea…” painted the distressing picture of a 22-year-old Kentucky slave woman, Margaret Garner, who escaped from a northern Kentucky slave plantation, owned by Archibald Gaines, during the harsh winter of 1856. It included her four kids, her husband and his two parents, plus their stolen horse-drawn get-a-way sleigh which they left in Covington, about 90 miles north of where I was born. Afterwards, they all fled on foot across the frozen Ohio River to Cincinnati, Ohio. That’s where they took refuge in a cabin owned by a free black cousin. Ohio was not a slave state. It was in the slave-free region separated by the Ohio River.
However, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act forced a duty on law enforcement to arrest runaway slaves and assist in returning them to their owners. Due to questionable areas in the law and legal disputes between slave-owning states, like Kentucky, and slave-free zones, like Ohio, the case evolved into high political drama, still fascinating, today, pitching abolitionists and anti-slavery forces against the South’s pro-slavery legions seeking to protect their pre-war way of life.
Later, Margaret Garner’s owner and U.S. Marshals tracked down the Garner family and surrounded the cabin. That’s when Margaret Garner grabbed a butcher knife and darn near chopped off the head of her two-year-old daughter, killing her. According to the author, she was about to murder her other children when the slave-catching posse burst into the cabin and prevented the act. Area newspaper headlines read: “ARREST OF FUGITIVE SLAVES- A Slave Mother Murders her Child rather than see it Returned to Slavery!” The trial lasted four weeks.
Similarly, in Toni Morrison’s book, Beloved happens to be the daughter who is murdered by her mother, Sethe, the story’s main character. After killing her, Sethe attempts to murder her other three children, as a posse arrives to return them to the Kentucky plantation (Sweet Home) and the horrors of slavery they had escaped. Years later, Beloved returns to haunt her mother.
When the movie version opened, introducing the ghost, I had no clue to what was unfolding, as well any connection to the famous fugitive-slave trial which argued over the meaning of murder, as the storm clouds circled and America split into various shades of blue and gray wool-flannel uniforms, to showcase which side of slavery and secession they stood.
Bleak Economic Horizons
The vile and repugnant Colonial slavery I knew came from various sources, not from classroom history books but from the mouths of community elders and stories past down in our families. From black folklore, enlightened teachers, black newspapers and, yes, snippets of black liberation theology, too, they continued. These horrific accounts of slavery’s past merely helped shape and strengthen my own resolve to contribute wherever possible to the collective idea which promises “…to never let the stories die,” concerning the trodden pathways of our ancestors and the sacrifices they made for us.
Yet, whether in Mauritania or the Mediterranean Basin, Africa or Asia, Europe or the Americas, the psychological impact of this wretched system continues to ooze from the cracks of globalized human bondage, behind the tattered masks of modern servitude, including wage and sexual slavery and creative systems of peonage- legal and illegal.
Ten years ago, I attended the Toni Morrison’s enlightening lecture on “Literature as an Agent of Social Change,” at Virginia Commonwealth University. It further clarified some of the ethical dilemma surrounding certain conditions of Colonial slavery and its peculiar interest with human breeding and sexual exploitation.
But, the invisible stage of slavery, today, with its inhumanity to the poor and powerless, demands that the global heads of state, including the melodramatic United Nations, stop dabbling behind the bureaucratic masks of slavery’s perverted perks which, in my opinion, covertly feeds the geopolitical elite and status quo.
Otherwise, the lofty quest for human rights, world peace and common decency will continue to remain bleak- on annoyingly anemic socioeconomic horizons, at best.
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