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Slavery’s Legacies of Racism and Dehumanization of Labor Still Poison the US
(Image: Penguin Classics)

Slavery’s Legacies of Racism and Dehumanization of Labor Still Poison the US

(Image: Penguin Classics)

In Solomon Northup’s narrative of his 12 years as an abducted free man sold into slavery, decscriptions of the atrocities of the practice abound.

Get the Penguin paperback edition of Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave, edited by of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It was orignally published in 1853. Make a contribution of $25 or more and receive it now. Just click here.

Amidst Northup’s account of his years as chattel in Louisiana, a particular recollection of the generational passage of the vile mindset of buying people as property and physically abusing (and killing them) speaks volumes about the persistence of racism. For about 10 years, Northup was owned by Louisiana plantation master Edwin Epps, who received great pleasure in having his slaves, including a young woman whom he was raping, frequently whipped. Epps, according to Northup, had a son “of ten or twelve years of age” who himself lashed slaves at will:

It is pitiable, sometimes to see him chastising, for instance, the venerable Uncle Abram. He will call the old man to account, and if in his childish judgment it is necessary, sentence him to a certain number of lashes, which he proceeds to inflict with much gravity and deliberation. Mounted on his pony, he often rides into the field with his whip, playing the overseer, greatly to his father’s delight. Without discrimination, at such times, he applies the rawhide, urging the slaves forward with shouts, and occasional expressions of profanity, while the old man laughs, and commends him as “a thorough-going boy.”

Although the institution of slavery was ended with the resolution of the Civil War, the attitude of racism handed from one generation to the next in the South – and other areas of the nation – has been remarkably tenacious among a significant segment of the population. In particular, the notion of white male privilege and superiority to those with other skin colors has been largely fueling an incendiary political battle, i.e., whether the United States is a white patriarchal nation or one of cultural diversity and enfranchisement.

Many of the angry white males in the United States partake of the legacy of a depraved culture of slavery that Solomon Northup experienced through the eyes of a free man. One can no longer legally own another person in the United States, but one is free to regard nonwhites with vile contempt. Just listen to Rush Limbaugh. “The other,” in such an inherited prejudice, is to be despised, belittled and marginalized.

Although the current popularity of Twelve Years a Slave (the movie and the original book) has much to do with the gripping drama of a free man who suddenly becomes a slave – and ultimately regains his freedom – it is also a timely reminder that slavery, economically, was about profit made from literally disposable laborers. Yes, there was an “investment” in purchasing a slave (a human life), but after that payment, it was all about maximizing productivity of labor to increase wealth on plantations (putting the other uses of slaves aside for the moment). Slaves only had value as laborers and property. The very word “slave” is a dehumanization of those who endured the institution’s pain, wrath and evil.

The monetization of people in terms of their value to increase the wealth of a selected elite was epitomized in a nightmarish reality – a living hell that was incorporated into the original US Constitution – in the antebellum South.

In the end, Solomon Northup ultimately had his dignity, family and freedom restored to him. He descended into the inferno but was miraculously able to return to his home in New York state. But a society that uses the majority of its population as financially subjugated workers to create gluttonous profits for a relative miniscule minority of that society is heir to an outlook that sees workers as essentially replaceable property.

Northup observes, in describing the young “Master Epps” (not yet a teenager):

“The child is father to the man,” and with such training whatever may be his natural disposition, it cannot be well otherwise than that, on arriving at maturity, the sufferings and miseries of the slave will be looked upon with entire indifference.

Replace the word slave with the majority of Americans who struggle financially and Northup’s insight applies – in an altered context of economic privilege – just as well in 2013. The practice of degrading the value of labor so that the wealthy elites can increase their profits is soaring.

Simultaneously, the deluded racism of the Tea Party represents the simmering bilious violence of Southern whites, who were themselves of limited means before and after the Civil War. Instead of resenting the wealthy slave owners and subsequent Southern oligarchy, they heaped their anger and loathing on blacks.

This dynamic was unexpectedly and obliquely alluded to in a speech on December 4 that President Obama gave on growing economic inequality and shrinking economic mobility:

So if we’re going to take on growing inequality and try to improve upward mobility for all people, we’ve got to move beyond the false notion that this is an issue exclusively of minority concern. And we have to reject a politics that suggests any effort to address it in a meaningful way somehow pits the interests of a deserving middle class against those of an undeserving poor in search of handouts.

This, too, is the legacy of the world that Solomon Northup unwillingly experienced, the toxic taint of slavery that tarnishes our democracy to this day.

Get the Penguin paperback edition of Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave, edited by of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It was orignally published in 1853. Make a contribution of $25 or more and receive it now. Just click here.

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