While researching background for my posting on replacing The Star-Spangled Banner I thought long and hard about slavery in America. There’s no debating its former existence and any rational person can see it’s ongoing impacts today. These thoughts lead me to two questions: why is something that was legally ended December 6, 1865 still haunting us and has slavery ever really ended in our nation?
These questions are not new and obviously I am not the first to ask them. However, I may have a different set of perspectives to share and since I want to pursue true change with this blog, I thought maybe I’d share my thoughts.
While I was incarcerated, I listened to A LOT of National Public Radio. I cannot say enough good things about what a treasure NPR really is. I recognize it is more liberal than neutral but what I find most amazing is how human it is; how kind and sensitive too. Here’s my sales pitch: LISTEN and DONATE. Okay, back to the topic at hand…
While listening to NPR one day I heard a guest explaining a concept they called, “Our 200-year Influence.” This person postulated that each of us are made up of the experiences and beliefs passed to us from those who had both direct and indirect influence on us and then we pass these same experiences and beliefs, tempered by our life’s experiences and beliefs, on to the next generation(s) and they have influence on future generations for another one hundred years following our death. This guest outlined how these 200 years in total contain the experiences, knowledge, prejudices, loves, hates and more of those that came before us which we add to or replace and pass along to those that come for one hundred years after us. They suggested that it is this two-hundred-year influence that drives our biases and how we think and act. I wish I could recall who this person was so I could give them credit for this amazing idea.
It’s more than amazing though, it’s existential! If we’re open to truly changing ourselves, we can help to create existential change in others too. Yet, as I am wont to do, I thought more about it and…
I decided this person is wrong.
I believe it’s far more than a two-hundred-year span of influence, I believe it may be a span of more than 425 years!
FOUR & ONE QUARTER CENTURIES!
To illustrate, I’ll explain how it works for me.
When I was born, my great grandmother was in her 80’s. She died when I was about five years old, so she had some level of direct influence upon me for about five years and indirect influence on me for two more generations; my grandmother and my father. But what was she made up of? When did others begin to influence her? Well, it would be the same for her as for me, right? It all began for her when she was born 85 years earlier. How old was the oldest person influencing her? Perhaps it was her great grandmother who was in her 80’s at that time. This would mean that the earliest date of influence upon me would be from about the year 1790! Now, looking forward from me – let’s hope I live to be 85 – I will have the influences of people from 1790 acting in me and I will pass that along, after altering for my life’s experiences, to my great grandchild who will do the same, and so for another 170 years what was passed to me from 1790 will still be influencing someone in 2215! See, that’s five generations of people living to be 85 years old. I guess you could go even further but I believe most influences before, in my case 1790, would blur and so what was passed from before 1790 would simply be an inaccurate bit of recorded history beyond 2215.
Does this seem impossible? Tell me, did your grandmother ever tell you stories about your great grandparents’ lives? If so, then you were subject to an indirect influence. And have you told other people stories about your grandparents’ or even your parents’ lives? Then you’re indirectly influencing those people with whom you have shared those tales. And even if that story is simply a story about a stolen bicycle, then perhaps you’ve planted a seed that it’s not safe to leave a bicycle unlocked when it’s not being used. Influence.
So, what’s my point in this?
My point is that the biases of people who lived during the days of slavery in America and then through the war that ended legal slavery in America were handed down to me; though altered with each generation. Think about it…someone who had very strong views on slavery, and the race of those enslaved, probably passed their biases to my great grandmother who passed them, though slightly altered, to my grandmother who also altered them and passed them to my father, who altered them as he passed them to me. Along the way, I know that one alteration was the belief that slavery is wrong…but…was the belief that those “freed” were equal to those who owned them adopted? In this example I cannot speak for my father but what I can say is that while the changes through the generations moved my father’s family to a belief that slavery is wrong, I cannot say that it moved his family, or he himself, to a place where true equality of all people was a fundamental belief.
Also, along the way, a new belief was adopted:
“They all have the same opportunities we do so if they’re not taking advantage of them, then their situation is their own darn fault.”
I used to believe that.
See how the influences of someone living in 1865 affected me? Was this belief original in my father? No. Was it original in my grandmother? Probably not, but it’s pretty easy to see how someone, my great grandmother for example, alive when the 13th Amendment was adopted might have, almost instantly, altered their belief that these newly “freed” people were given all of the same opportunities as those that wrote the amendment itself and that all they need do is take advantage of those opportunities to have the life they want.
What changed my belief?
I went to prison. I learned the truth through exposure to those whose 425 years of influence was, is, and will be, made up of vastly different experiences.
Given the span of influences on us, is it any wonder we really aren’t where we need to be in terms of racial and ethnic equality? We think we’re not being racist but unconsciously, many of us are and it’s because we’re altering the influences handed down to us slowly instead of radically. People today, the descendants of those held in slavery, are still suffering the impacts of those centuries of maltreatment.
Let’s look into slavery in the U.S. today. Does it exist?
Let’s be clear: slavery exists today within the United States and is written into the constitution. Where is it written and what does it say? Here it is:
The 13th Amendment (ratified December 6, 1865) states:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
This says it’s okay to treat and use those who have been convicted of a crime as slaves. When I was incarcerated, I saw many treated as slaves and in fact, I felt like one as well at times. Yes, we had a roof and food and a bed, and we were paid, but what is the truth of these things? Where I was held, the building was in poor condition with inconsistent environmental conditions, the food was horrible and sometimes inedible (did I mention that some of it was marked, “for zoo and institution use only”?), the bed was 22 inches wide with a thin mat on a steel plate without a pillow for proper head and neck support and pay was 12 cents per hour and there were people who received no pay whatsoever and yet had a job. This matches well one definition of slavery: work done in harsh conditions for low pay. Additionally, the work was miserable because the staff were typically rude, condescending and disrespectful, there was little or no fulfillment in the work, the work was not training for a new future, the work provided no rehabilitation, and missing work could land you in the SHU (commonly known as solitary) and lead to lost good time. I freely admit it was better than what those enslaved here in the early years of our country suffered but don’t we know better now? Is someone who has broken a law and “duly convicted” really to be treated as a slave? I know that prison is punishment, but I also know those inside are still humans AND sometimes they are someone YOU know and care about.
I used to think, “Good! Give them what they deserve!” Then I lived it. Then those who love and know me lived it. It’s ALL WRONG. Did you know there are over 2 MILLION people sitting in prison right now –
And there are more than 20 MILLION people in the US today with a felony in their past.
That means there are more than TWENTY-TWO MILLION current or former constitutionally approved slaves in the United State of America. This amounts to about 6% of the overall population and about 16% of all households. Slavery, and its former sufferers, are everywhere.
6% of all Americans
16% of all households
33% of African American Males
Again, the influence of those from 1865…and earlier.
Stepping into the arena that encompasses the descendants of the slaves brought to our shores during the great slave trade days, it’s important to understand that the outcome of those days has not been kind or fair to those here who struggle daily with the weight of those horrible actions and their repercussions. Did you know there were an estimated 12.5 MILLION Africans taken, 10.7 MILLION survived (which means 1.8 MILLION died while being transported), and all landed somewhere in the “New World.” How many landed here in the US? About 600,000 either directly from Africa or through the Caribbean. A small percentage, about 5%, but isn’t even one individual actually a lot? How many people in the US are descended from those 600,000? No one knows right now but there are studies underway to figure that out. Amazingly, when the 1860 census was completed there were over 3.9 MILLION slaves reported in the US.
More than 12% of the total population.
This means the 600,000 grew to 3.9 MILLION? Yes. It’s a travesty. And when you read these numbers, you have a new perspective on what slavery has left behind. Obviously, after six generations, there are TENS OF MILLIONS of descendants.
TENS OF MILLIONS
For sake of argument, let’s say
35 MILLION (there’s actually some data to support this number)
Are they slaves today? Let’s talk about that. Let’s use that as our segue into why it might just be time to redefine what slavery is. Why? It is all too easy for us to point at others when it comes time to be introspective and honest with ourselves. I said this blog would be about
and I said I hoped to give reason to consider new perspectives on what love is and what it means and how it is practiced. Are we going to sit back and ignore what is happening and what has happened? We cannot. This is why we need to develop a new definition of slavery which means we must think:
more like people who care about our neighbors.
What might a new definition of slavery be? Interestingly, the full definition covers so many more people than those we traditionally think of. Here are some added definitions; taken from various dictionaries:
- A civil relationship whereby one person has absolute power over another and controls their life, liberty, and fortune.
- The subjection of a person to another person.
- The condition of being subject to some influence or habit; submission to a dominating influence.
- A condition compared to that of a slave in respect of exhausting labor or restricted freedom.
- The condition of being legally owned by someone else and forced to work for or obey them.
Our definition must truly encompass what it means to be a slave. I’m not talking about those who claim to be, “a slave to their job,” or to a technology or to some passion like sports. I am talking about those who maybe don’t fit what most people think of as a slave because most people only know what has been told to them in a history class or by someone who is the descendant of a slave or worse, by those we elect and use the common definition to gain power, votes or justify some action they want to take or have taken. We must divorce the truth from a party’s stand, whether historical or current, and view it for what it is: how people were, and are, treated.
Who would I include in a new definition of slavery? Well, I know I am not the person to define slavery today, but here are some of my thoughts on who I would include:
Every person living homeless or in abject poverty (can you imagine living where homelessness is a crime?!)
Every prisoner (because the constitution allows this).
Every person released from prison and trying to rebuild a life (because added laws that former inmates must follow are imposed without basis in fact).
Every veteran who goes without medical care (why are we withholding care for those whose service was instrumental in our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness?).
Every child who is bullied (imagine how these children must feel as they are controlled by another child).
Every person suffering mental illness who cannot get care (instead, we imprison them – then they are legally slaves).
Every person denied the right to vote (their voice is taken away without basis in fact – and by the way, the constitution does not say a former prisoner’s right to vote is taken away).
Every person denied a wage they, and those who depend on them, can live on (because the help they need is based on the capitalistic system we Americans live within).
Shall I go on? Am I making myself clear? Until ALL PEOPLE are valued – raised up – EQUAL – we cannot say anyone is truly free. The 13th Amendment was written through the eyes of people mired in textbook slavery; they meant well (we hope) but they didn’t write a timeless amendment and so it is anachronistic and really needs to be rewritten, but until then we can
our views in the immediate and change our influence not only today but for more then 200 years after our death. Until we all agree on what slavery truly is, we cannot change the lives of anyone.
Once again, it all boils down to this:
Love your neighbor as you love yourself.