about 3,500 words
A Literary Exploration of the Impact of Chattel Slavery in America
[The Following is An Open Letter and Invitation to Writers of Serious Fiction in Any Genre, including SF, Fantasy and Horror]]
I always knew that “Excellence”—a parable about race hatred and genocide, which I wrote in 2001-2002, 22 years after first conceiving the idea—was an attempt to imaginatively confront the internalized consciousness of Jews and anti-Semites, specifically European Jewry and Nazis. It took me another decade to realize that this little tale encompassed a more, or at least an equally, intractable problem: namely, black-white race relations in the United States of America. Even more slowly (to my everlasting shame), the brutal dumb show of South African apartheid, Rwanda and Bosnia, Shi’a and Sunni sectarian violence filtered in.
The essential paradox (which I stumbled on at the age of 12, when I found Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution at the Buder Library in South St. Louis) is firmly lodged in the tension between our proclaiming, on the one hand, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident: that all Men are created equal…” and, on the other, the very existence of the institution of chattel slavery on these shores. The ellipsis is worth removing, for the rest of Jefferson’s sentence in The Declaration of Independence continues:
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
It was perfectly clear to the 12-year-old in 1963 (and remains so 50 years later) that not only had the U.S.A. failed to live up to its fundamental principles, it had violated them in a particularly egregious, grotesque, barbaric manner. My country, it seemed, was intellectually and emotionally shackled by the most callous and destructive hypocrisy. It was not until I had finished writing the manuscript of Sinister Dynamic: Global Governance and the Reconstruction of Nature in mid-September 2013 that it occurred to me that there might be other creative writers, of varying ethnicities, who were also wrestling with the same unregenerate, unthinkable, Gordian knot of American chattel slavery and its consequences for the subsequent deforming of American culture, politics, institutions, habits and mores.
The buzz and animated discussions in the wake of the release of 12 Years a Slave in 2013 points to the intransigence and volatility of the subject. The history of chattel slavery is important, confirmed by the literature and scholarship that has grown up around African American history, exemplified by the researches of Philip Curtin and Henry Louis Gates, the writings of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, and the stupendous exegesis of the Middle Passage. It is understandable that African Americans are especially interested in a subject that concerns them so intimately. If I were an African American, or even a Caucasian historian or sociologist professionally interested in the subject, I would immerse myself in studying the multifaceted etiology of chattel slavery. However, and let me be explicit about this: our knowledge or lack of knowledge of the history of chattel slavery is not our actual problem concerning slavery. Our genuine and, so far as I can assess, our unrecognized and perhaps unrecognizable problem is the long-term psychological, cultural and institutional damage that chattel slavery has done to all of the people in America: red, white, black, yellow and brown.
A genuine grasp of history is probably the last possession a person acquires in the course of developing from childhood to adolescence and adulthood—nowhere is this more strikingly apparent than among Caucasian youth in America. Like many of my generation, the so-called “Baby Boomers,” my childhood was fed by picture books about Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson and Jim Bridger; movies like Quo Vadis, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, The President’s Lady and The Buccaneer (three of which were Cecil B. DeMille Technicolor epics) no doubt colored and shaped to an even greater extent my initial sense of history. A truly robust and critical grasp of history hardly began before my mid-twenties. An early love of Shakespeare attracted me to the 17th century, John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, and the reign of Elizabeth 1. A colossal, 16-hour Humanities program at Westminster College, directed by a team of gifted teachers and scholars like Bob Hoerber, Chris Hauer, Russ Jones, Bill Bleifuss and many others, allowed me to see Western Civilization with new eyes in its breadth, depth and detail. Jones had cautioned me “Don’t waste your time reading introductions to books and secondary sources. Go straight to the argument of a book. Read the primary sources.” Those semesters were undoubtedly the most intense season of intellectual exploration, discovery and creativity of my life, a period in which I read widely across several disciplines. I wrestled with classic problems Western Civilization, including: freedom and authority, the role of science and technology in society, the value of religious experience, the problem of meaning and the purpose of art, while grappling with the sexual revolution, race relations in America and the war in Vietnam. Stephen Thomas’s “Contemporary Social Science” immersed me in Hobbes’ Leviathan, Machiavelli’s Discourses, Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and Hannah Arendt’s On Violence (I am also indebted to Thomas for introducing me to the work of literary historian and Puritan scholar, Perry Miller, whose writings, like those of Hannah Arendt, became for me a lifelong study).
“Excellence” had numerous sources, including Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Arthur Hiller’s film version of Irish actor-playwright Robert Shaw’s “The Man in the Glass Booth,” and Albert Camus’ intrepid dissection of the master-slave relationship in The Rebel. But the initial inspiration for the story came from an advanced project in aesthetics with philosopher James Swindler at Westminster in 1978, specifically my reading and ruminating over Hegel’s discussion of ‘romanticism versus classicism in the arts.’ My grotesque little parable had attempted to depict in the realm of physical appearances that invisible deformity wrought in both slave and master by the power dynamics of dominance and submission. This suggested a possible way of getting at or unveiling America’s two-headed approach to the entire issue of race, a means of liberating whites and blacks from the cul-de-sac into which the weight of history, contingency and man-made necessity had driven them.
Of course, I had read Benito Cereno, Herman Melville’sprophetic parable of black-white race relations (at one point, I even started writing a letter to outlawed Roman Polanski, urging him to direct a film version of that masterpiece). I had also read Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, James Baldwin’s stories and essays, especially The Fire Next Time. I had heard some of the speeches of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., absorbed The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley, and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, which I imbibed along with my readings of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Kafka, Bertrand Russell, Freud, Jung and Wilhelm Reich, among many others.
As early as 2004, a project had begun to form in my mind, with reflections about pigment and reparations. By September 2013, the prospect of inviting a selection of creative writers in various genres of fiction (including SF, realism, surrealism) to articulate the subterranean currents, unspoken effects, box canyons and escalating emotions resulting from more than three centuries of American chattel slavery.
In The Rebel, originally published in 1951 (incidentally, the year I was born in Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love”), Camus writes that “the master and slave are really in the same boat: the temporary sway of the former is as relative as the submission of the latter.” Because, Camus argues, man craves recognition by the consciousness of others, even at the risk of his own life,
The entire history of humanity is, in any case, nothing but a prolonged fight to the death for the conquest of universal prestige and absolute power. It is, in its essence, imperialist.
The fact that humanity’s entire history is imperialist—if it is a fact—in and of itself does not determine our future history or render it inevitable. According to Camus, the dramatic climax of the master-slave relationship is a fight to the death, or rather a one-sided genocide, as Melville’s great novella had insinuated. Modern ideologies (at least the ones, he says, “that are changing the face of the earth”) had internalized the process of history in terms of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic; these same ideological reflections and guises of Capitalism—liberalism and conservatism no less than totalitarianism—are committed to the annihilation of their competitors, each seeking to utterly destroy whatever it perceives as its antithesis. Because the master’s power and identity depend wholly on the existence of the slave, “this relentless tragedy is absurd.” Once the other is destroyed, because “the victorious consciousness” can no longer “be victorious in the eyes of something that no longer exists,” the result is a loss of identity or spiritual fragmenting—a bitter legacy of ignominy, isolation, ostracism—in a word: inferiority!
“The type of consciousness, which, to preserve its animal existence, renounces independent life, is the consciousness of a slave.” (To read that sentence in the light of Hannah Arendt’s dictum that America has become “a society of jobholders” is to experience a sobering, even a chilling, pause.) Should he succeed in overthrowing his master, the slave is therefore really in no better position, since his very existence too depends on recognition by the master; indeed, the slave’s position is worse, because he longs for the master’s independence; that is, he longs to be a master, himself!
“Mastery,” as Camus declares, “is a blind alley.” The master exists “only to arouse servile consciousness, the only form of consciousness that actually creates history.” Unlike the master, the slave at least “can improve himself.”
For an America stuck in the tight corner of this conundrum, the deep-seated sense of inferiority and spiritual void, for which American exceptionalism is but a fragile facade, exacerbates the situation. That existential condition profoundly complicates our collective problem as a nation, which leads to a decisive question. Is America capable of stepping outside the box of historical necessity, ironclad tradition, inherited ideological commitments, and sheer ingrained habit, to construct a clearer, more inclusive and less violent vision of its destiny?
Unfortunately, a blind spot where freedom, equality and chattel slavery converge hampers white adults in America. No one, no black person, not Malcolm X or even Cornell West, could expect whites to rejoice in a recounting of the history of chattel slavery in North America. Whites are only too happy to announce, “That’s over, that’s history. Let’s move on,” not reckoning with how some 350 years of buying and selling African slaves as property and commodities influenced and deformed both blacks and whites as individuals and communities; nor with appreciating how the institutions, mores and mindsets that benefited from chattel slavery persist well into our own time. Whites simply find too painful, intimidating or just plain impossible to deal with the profound contradiction between our founding principle and the sheer existence of chattel slavery. Skeptics may try to spin Jefferson’s phrasing by cleverly pointing out that ‘all men may be created equal, but they don’t all stay that way’—a cruel morphing of the opening line of Rousseau’s Social Contract—but this ignores the rest of Jefferson’s sentence, quoted earlier, which clearly asserts that all men possess an unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That consideration clinches the argument.
Nor is it sufficient to assert, “The Civil War settled this question once and for all.” Though true in a purely technical way, the subsequent history of Reconstruction, Carpetbaggers and Jim Crow shows how thoroughly superficial that claim is. If the American Civil War was fought over the issue of preserving the Union (an essential component of which certainly involved the abolition of chattel slavery), and those favoring that preservation proved victorious, it is fair to ask: What, exactly, do we mean by “preserving the Union”? If Union does not mean distributing and extending Jefferson’s franchise and benefits of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to all U.S. citizens (and, implicitly, to the rest of the world), I don’t know what it means. But it surely cannot mean preserving the status quo and the carte blanche of so-called “rugged individualists”—that is, ruthless, power-hungry egotists and sociopaths, whether these be human persons or corporations—to trample on the rights and destroy the happiness of others in their campaign to grab as much as they can get for themselves. Anybody who thinks it does has no appreciation of America or American history.
At risk of repeating a point that is certainly worth repeating: History is usually the last thing young persons ever come to terms with—assuming they ever do. That is because the pressure of exigent events in contemporaneous time—a period scheduled by an individual’s birth date—demands the bulk of one’s attention and initially blocks the opportunity of forming a broader, deeper perspective. Our children and young people are today more regimented and scheduled (one might say: enslaved) by the demands of society than at any time in history; the immense technological distractions they face threaten to jettison not just one generation but posterity. This exigent situation points to the necessity and purpose of education, which, as philosopher Walter Stace recognized, is not to meet corporate employment rolls, but rather to teach people “what things in life are genuinely valuable. That is, it is concerned with ends.” General education in which the special classroom relationship between a teacher’s authority and knowledge and a student’s curiosity and desire to learn is preserved and protected from society will instill a critical sense of history and respect for the past, the one ingredient necessary for each generation to effect responsible changes in their world, a world that continually ages.
So how has chattel slavery and its institutional amplitude deformed whites and blacks in America? One need look no further than the Ku Klux Klan and black-on-black shootings in our inner cities; anti-black/Muslim/immigrant bigotry among Republicans, Skin Heads or neo-fascist gang-movements and their fellow travelers; the growing plague of narco-trafficking and drug addiction; the entire history of racial segregation and integration; and the gross disparity in state funding for the education of whites and blacks. Periodic brutal murders of blacks by whites, a vestige of the widespread lynching and immolating of African Americans that exploded after the Civil War, white flight from city centers to the suburbs exacerbated by Civil Rights victories of the 1960s and 1970s, only add to the docket. The ‘War on Drugs’ created by Richard Nixon and inflamed by Ronald Reagan’s pro-Contra policy of trading exported arms for imported drugs like cocaine and heroin led to an epidemic among poor black, white and brown populations in city cores across the country. Combined with incarceration tactics targeting people of color, Draconian drug enforcement-and-sentencing laws, a growing prison-industrial complex dominated by corporations like Wackenhut and CCA comprise a second Jim Crow that effectively enslaves minorities by effectively branding them as a permanent criminal underclass, stripping them of every right except the right to return to prison. To cite these instances is to mention only the most blatant forms of confirming evidence.
Which leads to my central point: Our problem lies not with a failure to recount details of the history of chattel slavery but rather with the profound and lasting effects that have deformed American culture, our institutions, pastimes, and national psyche. The propagandizing of reproductive rights, the assault on public education, family, teachers, middle class and working poor, the resurgence of state’s rights (surely, the Civil War resolved that issue once and for all), the corporatized government’s embrace of assassination, torture and illegal wars of aggression, climate science denial, the increasing militarization of law enforcement, our fanatical obsession with what sports writer Frank DeFord has called the “gladiator sport” of professional football, the Republican plan to privatize all government functions, the supranationalist ambitions of the corporatized national security state and its intelligence community adoption of illegal and unauthorized total surveillance of the entire populace: all grimly testify to that deformity as amply and eloquently as do the targeting of Muslims and Hispanic immigrants, the murders of Kenneth Chamberlain, Sr. and Trayvon Martin, or the branding of peaceful Occupy protesters as “terrorists.”
There are deeper psychological and economic harms that the sordid history of chattel slavery has guided and shaped. The psychological damages, while somewhat harder to discern, are every bit as important as the most overt physical violence. These include self-hatred and the undermining of simple human confidence in one’s capacities, self-esteem, and faith in one’s ability to realize goals, without which there would never have arisen the Black Panther or Black Muslim movements, with their goals of autonomy, discipline, education, self-realization and self-respect, and quite possibly even Malcolm X’s preaching the importance of segregation and economic independence of African Americans. These losses or impairments also relate directly to the disparity between blacks and whites with regard to health outcomes, such as alcoholism, tobacco and drug addiction, cardiovascular disease and cancer, where whites have statistically much lower rates.
The economic harms are two-fold: on one hand, there is the denial of economic opportunity to African Americans as a class and, on the other, there are undeniable benefits that have accrued to powerful financial, industrial and class interests, favoring individuals and families (analogous to the benefits of Nazi collaboration by Bayer, I. G. Farben, Swiss banks, Wall Street, and various German institutions, which in some cases have led to the payment of reparations).
* * *
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967, calling the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” he repudiated many things—racism, violence, the War in Vietnam—but these, he declared, are only symptoms of a deeper spiritual sickness in America. Exactly one year later, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated. I have a particularly intimate tie to Dr. King’s assassination. You see: April 4 is my birthday. I am not sure that I was even aware of this fact until I got to college. I have been increasingly aware of it with every passing year. This project, this book, this proposition is dedicated to that recognition and responsibility, a collective responsibility but not, I think, a burden.
Possibly, the categories I mentioned earlier—unacknowledged subterranean currents, unspoken effects, box canyons and escalating emotions—will suggest other themes as a way of organizing the contents and invitations to this collection; of inspiring American writers of varied backgrounds and ethnicities to contribute to these imaginative explorations, dissections, and assessments of the impact, rather than the history, of chattel slavery in America; and perhaps to celebrate the ways in which Americans may discover a surprising and edifying unity in their rich and bountiful diversity.
I had originally intended to approach Amiri Baraka with the project; his passing has left an unfillable void in the universe of poetry and political understanding. Other names that occurred to me include: Alice Walker, Tony Puryear, Erika Alexander, Nnedi Okorafor, Geoffrey Thorne, Hannibal Tabu, DeWayne Copeland, Vincent Moore, Dani Dixon, Robert Roach and Brandon Easton. Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou crossed my mind early on; but, since I do not know any of these writers and have no idea how to get in touch with them, I have decided instead to use this open invitation format. Writers of every gender and ethnicity—red, white, black, brown and yellow—interested in contributing imaginative explorations suggested by this multifaceted theme may contact me at the address below.
So, in closing, let me pose once again the provocative, the controversial, the challenging question: Is America capable of stepping outside the box of historical necessity, ironclad tradition, inherited ideological commitments, and sheer ingrained habit, to construct a clearer, more inclusive and less violent vision of its destiny?
To answer that question, I invite interested writers of every ethnicity—red, white, black, brown and yellow—to contribute their own imaginative explorations of the impact of slavery on American life to this proposed collection; to which end I offer my grotesque parable of race hatred and genocide, “Excellence.”
Westport Entertainment District
516 West 39th Terrace
Kansas City, MO 64111
 This refers to a selection from The Phenomenology of Spirit included in Philosophies of Art and Beauty: Selected Readings in Aesthetics from Plato to Heidegger.