Sometimes it seems that the online publishing world is a rage of elbows and snark. But it isn’t.
Wednesday I published a piece on ZDNet about Jefferson Davis – June 3 is his birthday – and Edward Snowden, musing on how both were treated. Davis, of course, was the one and only president of the Confederate States of America – a nation founded on the unholy principle that all men are NOT created equal – and committed treason. The war he led was the bloodiest in American history – an estimated 600,000 dead – and after a couple of years of incarceration he was allowed to live out the rest of his life a free man.
In fact, Davis’ birthday is a state holiday in Alabama.
Snowden, almost single-handedly, has made Americans debate what we mean by freedom in the digital age. He’s exposed abuses that will cost American companies tens of billions in lost sales and many American jobs. And for that some want to lock him up for life.
But the comment I got was this:
Edward Snowden made a huge sacrifice of his life & future to do what he thought was right. I lived in Seattle, there’s a small Confederate cemetary there; I think a lot of Southern soldiers went West after the war. To this day, someone maintains it in good condition. I can’t put it into words but somehow, all of this makes me think about what it means to be human.
The StorageMojo take
My grandfather’s older brother fought for the South (l-o-o-ng generations in my family). I have many slave-owning ancestors.
About 15 years ago I concluded that slavery was worse for the owners than the slaves, which, given its brutality, was awful enough. So I too think about what it meant to be human during slavery, and what it will take for America to overcome its blood-soaked and inhuman heritage.
Update: Somebody took the words ““I concluded that slavery was worse for the owners than the slaves” and, in evident disbelief, tweeted them, so on the off-chance that this goes viral, what do I mean by that? Three points:
- In no way am I trying to downplay or excuse the utter brutality and cruelty of slavery, which I have studied in some depth. The movies 12 Years a Slave and Amistad barely scratch the surface, presumably in the interest of making something watchable. The reality was much worse.
- Contemporary observers, such as the renowned English actress Fanny Kemble, (who married one of America’s richest men, only to find his wealth was based on slavery), reached similar conclusions. Inquiring minds would wonder why, as I did.
- In broad strokes, my answer to why slavery was worse for holders than slaves is:
- The arbitrary, capricious and brutal treatment slaves endured forced them, among other things, to engage with the real world in order to survive. Theirs was an ugly reality, supremely unjust, but to survive and prosper (and some did) they engaged it with all the intelligence and humanity they had.
- Slave-owners, on the other hand, lived in a fantasy world where treating human beings as property and stealing their labor was “moral”. Their ministers justified it, their livelihoods required it and their self-image as good Christian men of affairs blinded them. This created a cultural mind set that is, it seems, still evident today.
Picking at the scab of American slavery is a risky business, one that I’m not well-equipped to pursue, though I believe it is the great historical mission of America for the next century or more. For me culture, history and storage are inextricably bound, which makes the latter worthy of all the care and respect we can manage.
Some recommended reading:
- American Slavery As It Is by Theodore Dwight Weld, 1839.
- Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 by Fanny Kemble.
- The excellent Soul By Soul; Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market by Walter Johnson, Harvard University Press, 1999.
- ￼The Plantation Mistress; Woman’s World In The Old South by Catherine Clinton, Pantheon Books, 1982