Sunday, June 28, 2009

We Too Were Slaves

Just lately, I have embarked on a reading (and soon, I hope, a writing) project that I’d like to tell you all a little about today, one that has had an impact on the way I find myself thinking about all sorts of things.

One of the lines in the Pesach Haggadah that is, I think, cited just a bit too often by people who haven’t really thought the matter through all that carefully is the famous injunction that all of us are called upon to think of ourselves as though we personally had been slaves in Egypt. Many of us know the line so well we can quote it by heart: bekhol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim. It’s an unusual concept, but the dor vador part, emphasizing that this self-conception is to be consciously cultivated in every Jewish generation, is key: we are called upon not merely to recall that our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, although surely that too, but also to develop a self-image of ourselves as former slaves who owe their freedom to God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm.

The Haggadah roots this thought in a verse from Deuteronomy that says as much almost clearly: “…for God brought us out from there to give us the land once promised to our forebears (Deuteronomy 6:23.)” Was it really that stray “us” that led to this line of thinking? It could be! After all, Moses was speaking not to the slaves themselves by this point in the story, but to their children, to the Israelites poised to embark upon the conquest of the land. By saying “us” to them, he was suggesting a deep lesson: that they too were to think of themselves as freed slaves and that this was no less real a concept merely because they, who had been born as free men and women in the wilderness, had never actually been slaves to Pharaoh at all. So, the Haggadah is saying, are we too to think of ourselves in that light…

But what was slavery really like? Like most Americans, I was brought up to see a clear parallel between Israelite slavery in Egypt and the enslavement of black people in America before the Civil War. Lincoln, cast in American mythology as the American Moses, freed the slaves. The slaveholders’ armies perished at Gettysburg and Antietam just like Pharaoh’s minions drowned in the sea. The slaves themselves were strangely depicted in both narratives almost as passive non-players whose role merely was to yearn for freedom, but that hardly seemed to matter. And the question of what slavery itself was like was rarely addressed directly. Movies like Gone with the Wind (and so many others like it) made slavery look almost benign, more like having a really bad job than anything else. The concept of working for no pay and not having the right to quit seemed very undesirable, of course…but the realty was depicted in a distinctly more benign manner: more often than not, slaves were depicted as well-fed and happy, as servants wholly and cheerfully devoted to their masters’ welfare, occasionally even as wise. This was especially true of women, I believe—the caricature of the happy mammy is almost indelible in this context—but it was true of men too. (Regarding the mammy, look here and you’ll see just what I mean: And the whole museum of racist paraphernalia at is worth browsing in its own right as well—some of what’s gathered there is just unbelievable.)

For its part, the Torah too skips over the actual details of the experience of slavery. In the first chapter of Exodus, the Israelites are enslaved. In the second, Moses is born. In the third, God sends Moses to Pharaoh to demand the Israelites’ freedom. The rest of the story has to do with the elaborate pas de deux between Moses and Pharaoh as played out against the background of the plague narrative. The slaves themselves are rarely heard from…nor is any detail of their day-to-day lives revealed except for the odd reference here and there to taskmasters, to daily brick quotas, and to the question of who is to procure the straw from which the bricks are to be made. They appear to live in their own homes and within normal family structures. Even as important a detail as the Israelites’ reaction to Pharaoh’s wholesale slaughter of their infant sons is passed over in a kind of ominous silence that now sounds deafening to me.

Let’s skip a few millennia into the future, almost to our own day. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration was called into being to provide employment for unemployed Americans. Under the umbrella of the WPA, different undertakings took shape, among them the Federal Writers’ Project under the direction of John A. Lomax, known to most as the foremost authority in his day on American folk music. And it was in the context of the Writers’ Project that someone, possibly Lomax himself, noticed that almost exactly seventy years had passed since the passage of the thirteenth amendment finally freed all the slaves in the United States (and not just the ones in states that had seceded, as per the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.) The number seventy struck Lomax as highly significant: it meant that the youngest living former slaves who had been old enough at emancipation to have maintained clear, connected memories of slavery would have to be in their upper 80s or even older. An effort was made to locate as many of these people as could be found. And an amazing number were found, more than 2300 in total, a fair number of whom were then over 100 years old. Eventually, the interviews were published by the Library of Congress in seventeen volumes, collectively called Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.

From those seventeen volumes, lots of abridgements have been published. (Google “WPA slave narratives” and you’ll see what I mean.) I started by reading When I Was a Slave: Memoires from the Slave Narrative Collection, edited by Norman Yetman and published by Dover Books, then went on from there to other slave narratives, some famous, others less so. But you can see the entire WPA collection now on line at, which is simply an incredibly rich site, the kind you could easily spend days, not hours, perusing and considering. And something unexpected and totally new has come to light just recently, the fact that some very few sound recordings were made of these interviews. They lay buried in the Library of Congress until a professor from the University of Maryland, Ira Berlin, found and restored them. And now they too are available for purchase—I’ve sent away for them and I’ll tell you all about them when they finally arrive, but the whole concept is almost unbelievable to me, that suddenly, truly out of nowhere, the possibility suddenly exists to listen to actual American slaves speaking in their own voices about their own experiences. You can have your own copy too, if you’d like: Berlin’s book (which includes a CD with all the voice recordings), Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk about their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation was published by the New Press just last fall and is available on-line and in most bookstores.

So I’ve been reading and reading and reading. And the more I read, the more obvious it has become to me just how wrong the picture I once had in my mind of what it means to be a slave truly was. These were not people with really bad jobs. The humiliation, the torture, the abuse, the physical violence to which slaves were subjected will strike all of you as the kind of details you would expect to find in Shoah memoires, not in books about the behavior of American citizens. The details go beyond chilling to truly shocking: a woman raped so repeatedly that she can report, almost off-handedly, that her twelve children were fathered by twelve different white overseers on her plantation, men who describe coming home after a day’s work to discover their children had been sold while they were off toiling in the fields, slaves forced to marry (and produce children) at their masters’ whim without regard to the fact that they were already married to other people, babies ripped from their mother’s breasts and given away on a whim as gifts to others. And these details only scratch the surface. That the perpetrators were Americans—and refined, educated citizens at that, men and women who professed faith in God, who considered themselves moral human beings, who supported secession because they felt strongly, not weakly, about the ethical right of individuals to chart their own destinies in life—only makes the larger story more bizarre, and more upsetting, not any less horrific. It feels like all I’ve been doing lately is recommending unpleasant reading to you. But this is unpleasant in the best sense of the word: stimulating, upsetting, inspiring, and overwhelming all at the same time. We can all do with a little unpleasant reading now and then!

This summer, I want to begin work on a new novel that will feature a rabbi involved in helping slaves escape in the years before the Civil War. The plot outline is just taking shape in my mind, but the background reading I’ve undertaken has changed the way I think about a great many things: about the place of black people in our American society, about slavery itself, about what it truly means to think of ourselves bekhol dor vador as freed slaves, as men and women who owe our freedom not the basic and inalienable human right to live free, but to God’s intervention in history to grant us our freedom from servitude. I want to write more about this in the future, as I listen to those recordings and read more and more about my self-assigned topic. But I thought I would write today just to whet your collective appetite to hear more about all this by telling you what I’ve been reading just lately, and how strongly it has affected me. That’s what’s so interesting about this kind of background research I undertake before embarking on a new writing project: truly, I never can guess where exactly it will lead me, or what I’ll learn when I get there. (June 20, 2008)

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