Legacy of Slavery & Oppression in Literature

Stories about slavery have a long tradition. The first example from European literature that comes to my mind is The Oresteia. Most people don’t talk about that ancient Greek play as a slave story, but Cassandra is a slave. Her role as cursed witness continues to speak to audiences. Slaves and slavery are central to the stories in the The Bible. Shakespeare wrote explicitly about slavery, and his character Caliban continues to influence writers concerned with the legacy of slavery. Don Quixote contains several stories about slavery, and its author, Miguel de Cervantes, was a slave for half a decade.

By the time merchant capitalism was an established part of European trade, slavery was the backbone of colonial economics. In 1688, Aphra Ben wrote Oroonoko, a story of an African prince who dies as a slave in a South American plantation. In the 18th century, the English translation of A Thousand Nights and a Night, which is full of slave stories, was popular reading.

Abolitionist in the 19th century used slave stories to argue against slavery. Harriet Ann Jacobs and Frederick Douglass wrote biographies about their experience with and escape from slavery. Likewise, slavery is the subject of the first novel by an African-American, Clotel; or the President’s Daughter by William Wells Brown. Harriet Beecher Stowe consulted with Douglass and other abolitionists while writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The history of slave stories is long, and the legacy of slavery will too be long. Some recent examples of slave stories are Roots (1976), Beloved (1987), and Kind One (2012).

Although slavery was part of most societies in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, there were deviations in how it was practiced by various cultures. Race and Slavery in the Middle East by Bernard Lewis details some of these differences. For example, slavery laws in the United States protected the property rights of slave owners; slave laws in some Arabic nations protected the rights of people who were slaved. In some cases, the Arabic slave code provided for rights we today call health insurance and retirement benefits. But slave stories from all cultures agree on one point: it was dreadful to be a slave.

Given the long history of slavery and the ubiquity of the practice, our modern attitude toward it as anathema is surprising. How and why did our attitude change? Another book published just two years prior to Uncle Tom’s Cabin describes in detail the political and economic changes that turned people’s minds against traditionally accepted social practices. The Communist Manifesto describes the rise of capitalism that resulted in a power exchange between the aristocratic class and the middle class.

Feudal institutions did not end with the revolution of the middle class; instead, those institutions were modified. Prestigious occupations were reduced to wage-earning occupations: lawyers, priests, poets, etc. Eventually, the less prestigious occupations of slaves would also become wage-earning, but not before capitalism reduced the slave to property. Merchant capitalist of Europe transformed the institution of slavery into an efficient and highly profitable venture, but in so doing slavery became inhuman, instead of merely dreadful.

I’ve already mentioned three novels from the past few decades that concern slavery. I would add to the list Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which is more about legacy ? than about slavery but holds the specter present throughout the novel.

Some of the best writing about the history of slavery in America is disguised as a sword and sorcery novel by Samuel R. Delany. In Neveryona, Gorgik the Liberator (a mix of Frederick Douglass and John Brown) fights to end slavery while the Court of Eagles melts iron chains to make iron coins to enslave the people more thoroughly. When confronted with this predicament, Gorgik continues to fight against slavery. Having been a slave himself, he can’t imagine any condition that could be worse. Marx and Engels identified the same move in the Communist Manifesto. Although the middle class viciously exploit the working class, it is a laughable alternative to return to feudalism and slavery. The same argument is alluded to in Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a genteel plantation owner defends slavery to his northern cousin.

I realize that I’ve written almost a thousand words on slavery and not yet mentioned racism–the very heart of slavery’s legacy. I hope to convey a distinction between racism and slavery. Slavery was an ubiquitous human practice for thousands and thousands of years. Slavery predates capitalism, racism does not. Racism is a relatively new development going back a few hundred years. Racism was created by capitalism as a technology to make slavery more profitable for the middle class. Racism persists to make oppression of the working class more profitable, but fighting racism is not the same as fighting slavery or class oppression.

A slavery novel worth studying, because it changed the world, is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. An interesting way to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin might be to ask oneself precisely when slavery, as depicted in the novel, becomes abhorrent. Is a slave’s life on a Kentucky farm acceptable? What about life under a kindly master on a large plantation? Or is it only the existence of Simon Legree that makes the practice of slavery intolerable. A follow-up question is: what conditions of poverty are acceptable today and what conditions are unacceptable.

As a writer, I endeavor to make conditions of poverty present to readers. Walter Mosley says,

The job of the writer is to take a close and uncomfortable look at the world they inhabit, the world we all inhabit, and the job of the novel is to make the corpse stink. ?

That is the job, but there is more. Literature names the culprit and repudiates the crime.

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