A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The tendency to mistreat one another, occasionally on a horrifyingly large scale, appears to run deep in the human makeup. Our technological progress routinely laps its moral counterpart, if, in fact, there is such a thing as human moral progress, and the clockwork regularity of atrocities like those in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Syria makes a strong case for the “no” side. Or is it, rather, that progress — both technological and moral — takes some of us, as in a ship, to better shores, while others are left to stare yearningly from crumbling, termite-ridden docks? I make daily use of astoundingly sophisticated devices, but if I had to make them — if the world turned to me after the apocalypse to restore its technological capability — there would be problems. In other words, while I live in a world that boasts great knowledge, that knowledge does not rest with me. Similarly, and for a variety of reasons, many places around the world have not arrived at the level of moral order sufficient to prevent massive campaigns against entire peoples, a level attained, for example — and just recently, and just barely — by the United States. Even here, the moral order is restricted to our own shores; the Iraq War, for instance, constituted a large-scale crime against a whole foreign population. And even within our shores, a glance at the skin color of the prison population makes one wonder what’s really going on. But for wholesale, front-and-center, U.S. government–sanctioned mistreatment of its own folks, you probably have to go back to the World War II internment camps.
So, the U.S. squeaks by. That gives us the leisure, as much of the rest of the world goes to hell, for ongoing contemplation — in books, in films, in the classroom — of two episodes in our past: the enslavement of blacks, which went on for a quarter of a millennium on our soil, and the Holocaust, which did not happen here but sent 140,000 survivors our way. It seems to be another unfortunate human tendency, when comparing horrors of this magnitude, to debate which was worse, with many black spokespersons, would you believe it, choosing slavery and an equal number of Jewish pundits — go figure! — voting for the Holocaust. Slavery was, of course, much worse than a short-term event like the Holocaust, doing untold damage to the psyches and life chances of generations of slaves and their descendants, possibly in perpetuity; except that, no, the Holocaust was far more horrible, since it went beyond mere enslavement to a largely successful campaign of extermination, blah blah blah, both arguments constituting an elaborate distraction that misses the point entirely. There are obvious differences between these two low points in history, but those differences, in the end, illustrate an even more obvious shared truth.
It should not be necessary to say that slavery, by its very nature, in its mere existence, is evil; that the gentlest slave owner is at best a morally compromised individual and at worst a sick one; and that we must never lose sight of these facts. But I say it, first, because there are still those who would de-emphasize the evil of slavery if not actually sing its praises (hello, Cliven Bundy), and second, I want no one to misinterpret what I feel moved to write.
Which is: that a (somewhat random) survey of well-known Holocaust memoirs and black American slave narratives would suggest that slavery is to the Holocaust as the darkest, most dispiriting and heart-sickening music is to a continuous, ear-splitting shriek. To experience life in a concentration camp — if it could be called life — was to undergo a uniform process of person-grinding that varied only to the extent that some took longer than others to be ground to nothing. (This leaves out the few who were able to maneuver into positions of relative privilege and the millions who were murdered outright). The world portrayed by Primo Levi in Survival in Auschwitz, by Elie Wiesel in Night, by many of those interviewed by Lyn Smith for Remembering: Voices of the Holocaust is one where escape was neither possible nor hoped for, where one survived outwardly by dying inwardly — cutting oneself off from human psychological need, from humanness itself. Levi wrote that he and those around him in Auschwitz became less than men. (The exceptions here were those few who, like Viktor Frankl, resisted the outer horror through strong inner lives, as Frankl recounted in Man’s Search for Meaning.)
American slavery seems to have been very similar to concentration-camp life in many respects; slave memoirists such as Harriet A. Jacobs, Solomon Northup, Frederick Douglass, Mary Prince, and Olaudah Equiano (aka Gustavus Vassa) reported that slaves were routinely and savagely whipped for doing substandard work — or committing any of a multitude of other so-called offenses — with masters excusing nothing on the grounds that the slaves had been given inadequate food, clothing, rest, and medical care, or that they were suffering the heartbreak of being sold away from their spouses, siblings, and children. The slave who made it through these conditions to reach the point of writing or dictating a memoir was the exception rather than the rule. And yet the widespread experiences documented by those exceptions to the rule are ones that sometimes left room for, if not happiness or contentment, at least a glimmer of hope and a semblance of humanity.
In several of the narratives, authors describe defining events in their lives as slaves: Douglass recalls as a personal turning point the day he fought back against an overseer (Northup, too, rebelled in this way, though the experience seems to have been less significant for him); Jacobs hid in a corner of her freed grandmother’s house for seven years, subjecting herself to greater confinement than she would have known in her regular life as a slave, but at least suffering on her own terms, thwarting her masters and laying the groundwork for her eventual escape; Mary Prince, taken along by her cruel masters on a trip to England, exasperated them to the point where they offered her the choice of returning with them to Antigua or being free in England, where she had no home and knew no one — and to their disbelief, Prince chose freedom. These experiences suggest the possibility, however rare, however severely limited, for individual choice, which some slaves acted on bravely and defiantly.
By contrast, Levi and Wiesel between them refer to one instance — the same one — involving choice: when German troops retreated from Auschwitz and the sick prisoners realized they could join the others in a forced march with the SS or stay in the medical ward, where their fates were uncertain — and might include being murdered by the departing Germans. Levi stayed, watching the abandoned camp turn into a feces-covered hell of illness and death, where he and a couple of others did all they could to help their fellow patients before the Russians arrived; Wiesel and his father went — underdressed for the cold — on the death march, where inmates were at some points reduced to eating snow while Germans laughed at them. Wiesel’s father perished, and Wiesel came close.
The difference in the levels or possibilities of choice was a result of another difference. The kapos, who directly oversaw concentration-camp inmates, were themselves prisoners, often former convicts selected specifically for their sadistic tendencies; the inmates were therefore (with the exception of the death march) at a remove from the SS, whose rule was as uniform and remote as it was inhumane. The difference in this regard between that and American slavery, then, was the difference between the inhumanly impersonal and the twistedly too personal. Concentration camp prisoners were known by the numbers tattooed on their arms, while black slaves were given the surnames of whoever purchased them; like a woman with a succession of husbands, a slave could have three or four names over the course of a decade. The twistedly personal aspect of slavery had different manifestations — Douglass, Jacobs, and Equiano all described “kind” owners who gave them reading lessons — but reached its peak of sickness in the relationship of certain slaves to their masters and mistresses, which suggests the most extreme example of a dysfunctional family. The lust of masters for female slaves, who as a result were hated and abused by the mistresses, was portrayed perhaps most famously in the film version of Northup’s book, Twelve Years a Slave, but it is also documented in Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and other works. What is a dysfunctional family but a group of people who have strongly negative feelings toward one another but are in continuous contact? In which the power imbalance favors the sickest members while the others are scarred for life?
No one spent an entire life in a concentration camp. Those who were taken to them fully understood the implications — the evil — of what was being done to them, even if they were powerless to resist it. You might think that those born into the dysfunctional family life of slavery, on the other hand, would be less aware of the outrageous violation of their rights, since they had never known anything else, and that only slaves who had been born free (Northup, Equiano) would fully appreciate the extent of the wrong done to them. In fact, in some cases, the opposite seems to be true. Jacobs, who was born a slave, not only escaped to the North but became indignant, she wrote, when a friend bought her freedom to prevent her recapture; she understood that her freedom was not, or should not be, up for sale or purchase by another, whoever it was. Compare Jacobs’s writings in this regard with The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. The author of this strange book wrote that he was born in what is now Nigeria (some dispute that he was born in Africa); according to Equiano, his tribe and others in the region enslaved one another, but Equiano himself was free until he was captured as a boy and sold into slavery in England, the U.S., and the West Indies. After earning enough money on the side to buy his freedom, Equiano continued working for his former master, at one point purchasing slaves on the former master’s behalf — this being the act of a man who had found religion and castigated himself for swearing and gambling. (Equiano, a kind of Forrest Gump of the slave era, appears to have regarded bondage not as the central fact of his life but as one in a series of adventures that also included service in the Seven Years War and a search in the Arctic for a route to India.)
Interestingly, Jacobs, like Equiano, also took herself to task, or at least tried to excuse herself before her readers, over what she considered a moral lapse (in her case it was fornication) — despite living in what might be called a morality-free zone. It is easier to understand the moral code among inmates of Auschwitz, or, rather, the lack of it: the inmates took great pains not to leave their very few, badly needed possessions where others could, with no hesitation or sense of doing wrong, steal them.
So many distinctions — all pointing to one colossal similarity.
The ultimate distinction between slavery and the Holocaust is that between “I own you” and “I am killing you.” Is owning worse, since it denies those owned the respect one accords an enemy? Is killing worse, since it rejects the very right of those killed to exist? Here we have what is known as a distinction without a difference. The best analogy may be of a photograph and its negative. Look at them close up, side by side: in this area, one is dark and the other is light! And here, too, and here! Step back, and something else becomes apparent. Many blacks were killed by slavery, whether murdered outright or worked to death; many victims of the Holocaust were enslaved on their way to being killed (what is a concentration camp worker but a slave?).
But even this is not the point. What if you were able to convince me that one atrocity was worse than the other? What would that suggest about the other? That it was merely terrible? That it’s not the worse thing that could happen? . . . that in the grand scheme, it wasn’t really so bad?
There is more to say, so much more to say, probably no end of things to say about slavery and the Holocaust. But in saying them we should not lose sight of the main thing, which any child could tell us: neither should have happened, and neither should happen again, anywhere, ever.
copyright 2014 Clifford Thompson