Occasionally I find myself a witness to fascinating conversations and today while I had a moment to rest in between running various errands and preparing to head off to The Dalles (which I will be doing after I stop at the library to pick up some books as soon as this has been written) I had the chance to see a fantastic thread about the history of slavery in the United States that pointed out the reality that quite a few blacks owned slaves themselves. By and large, my entire life I have been a student of the institution of slavery and not surprisingly have written and spoken about it often, not least because it still goes on in many areas of the world and still affects people from all different kinds of backgrounds. I have even met people who themselves were related to those in threat of being enslaved. As an example, one of the people I knew in Thailand was afraid that his father had been sent off to work off debt by being enslaved to Thai fishermen, and that is no joke at all when it comes to slavery. Still others I knew had to face coercion with regards to sex work. The history and present reality of slavery is an ugly picture, and there is no group of people who has not been faced with both ends of the ugly reality throughout human history.
It should not surprise me, but it still does anyway, that those who are the most violently hostile to the history of slavery in America should be so ignorant of the larger context in which that slavery existed. For one, there is the whole logistics of how it is that white slavers got their slaves to trade in the first place, from Africans who themselves sold their kinfolk or neighbors into slavery across the ocean, and then the way those slaves were obtained, kept in Africa, sold to European or Euro-American merchants, transported, and then sold in colonial markets, and so on. There is the logistics of the internal slave trade in America where free blacks were sometimes kidnapped and sold to plantation owners in the Deep South. There were white, black, and red slave owners. There was the thriving Arab slave trade which to some extent still survives today and slavery that still exists in many parts of the world. That is to say nothing about the history of slavery throughout the ages and the way that it served as a way to allow war to be profitable for elites in many countries. There is the damage that serving as a center for slaves has on the cohesion of society for millennia after slavery takes root, showing the huge degree of harm it does. And that is not even discussing the relationship of slavery to a whole host of other issues in theology, history, economics, law, and other fields. To be able to speak knowledgeably about such areas requires that we recognize the complexity of slavery and have some degree of compassion for everyone caught up within it in some fashion.
Why is it that so many people are unaware of this history and slavery in contemporary reality but so hostile to contemporary whites for supposedly benefiting from a slavery that existed in the past? In part, those who are aware of the larger context and present reality of slavery (a reality in which religious white Americans like myself are among the foremost foes of slavery) are inoculated against the racist ignorance that is spouted by those who think whites to be the villains of history by virtue of possessing knowledge of the truth about the Arab slave trade and slavery in the present world. It is only among those whose only knowledge of history consists of the biased and racist claims that to be white is to be evil and a lesser order of beings where this sort of folly is allowed to spread, and that can only exist on the part of an active suppression of the historical picture, including the role of white Europeans and Americans in being willing to suffer and in some cases (like Lincoln) even die for the well-being of others. Life is morally complex, and it forces us, if we want to have any claim to wisdom, to examine ourselves and the darkness inside our own hearts, rather than simply viewing evil as an external phenomenon that other people inflict upon us but that we are pure from.
One of the great tragedies of American slavery is that it offered little formal opportunity for slaves to better themselves and thus quenched the ambition that is possessed by people who know they have something to do to better their position. In the ancient world, there was a high degree of status that was gained by people who had a large quantity of clients who were dependent upon them but nevertheless free, and so it was in the best interest of slaveowners to be willing to free their slaves for a price that was earned through the hard work of slaves and then keep the freedmen as employees who were capable of earning money in lines of business that would have been disreputable for the patron to be personally involved in. Similarly, before slavery took hold in Virginia there were generations of indentured servants who worked in order to obtain free land and resources after a term of labor. It was the desire to have a permanent source of dependent labor that led the Virginians and others to set up the antebellum slave order in their area even as it was dying off in the remainder of the Western world for moral as well as economic reasons. This evil desire deserves to be examined and criticized, but it is worth considering the fact that the desire to elevate oneself and to have dependents and to be corrupt elites is not something that belongs to any one group of people but is a fairly widespread human problem across space and time. The community organizer who tries to enslave a neighborhood in envy and resentment so as to control their political and economic lives and the slimy slave dealer are not so different in their wicked trafficking of the souls of human beings. Let us not deceive ourselves that evil belongs only to some people and not to others.