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[personal profile] queenlua
i found it quite curious to see "My Family's Slave" percolating through the facetwitsocialsphere. it has "slave" in the title. it is about a slaveowner. and yet the comments accompanying the article weren't outraged so much as awed.

i read the piece. and it is written quite tenderly & beautifully. i had two major impressions of it: first, i was quite gripped by the author's pained relationship with his mother, the pain and complexity of it, her legitimate sacrifices just as obvious as her casual cruelty. second, i was bothered that the author never seemed to do much to help Lola. or rather, really, i guess, the author didn't seem troubled enough by his failure to help Lola. it's hard for a twelve-year-old to turn on their mom; i get that. it's easier for a young twentysomething to just avoid contacting a family that's doing a horrible thing than to turn in your own mom for doing a horrible thing; i get that. when mom dies and she's left behind a slave who's ill-equipped to get a proper place of her own, taking her in may seem benevolent; i get that.

but none of those choices should rest easy. none of those were the only choice, much as the author tries to imply that. the relationship with mom is hard, sure, but Lola had it hard too, and the author found it easier to stay distant and yell at mom rather than truly help. and i was especially bothered at the very end—the author didn't try to help Lola get a place of her own, or learn to read, and so on. even if the author was benevolent, it was a relationship based on a hideous imbalance of power; if the author couldn't repair or make moves to amend that then at least they could've tried.

so yeah, i found it quietly troubling.

and yet all the generally urban-lefties i know on the facetwitsocialsphere seemed to love the piece. "wow" and "so powerful" and so on. i couldn't quite grok what exactly they meant by "amazing read!" without further qualifiers.

so when a friend directly linked it to me, i shared my thoughts with him directly: it's a nice piece, but, isn't it kind of fucked up too? don't you find the author's actions, even if understandable, still troubling? isn't it messed up that we're only hearing about this after both the author and his slave is dead?

my friend said yeah, of course—but he hadn't realized this sort of thing could still happen in America, and hadn't realized how much more complicated it could be than just black-and-white good-person-bad-person, and though what the author did was probably wrong he was still a person.

i blinked. yes, of course they were a person. slaveowners are, in fact, people. shit, i read Gone With the Wind at age ten, i heard endless variations on "many slaveholders were benevolent" from various confederate-sympathizers, and so on. i'd had no shortage of apologia for slaveowners in my life and i'd learned to be suspicious of it. shit like Gone With the Wind paints just such a pretty picture, but would you ever pick the life of one of the slaves over any of the white people?

my friend offered the wry observation: well, probably it's popular because there's a lot of people like me who read The Atlantic, who grew up on the coast and never thought about it beyond "slaveholders were all terrible and lol the south."

as i thought it over, i realized i'd had a similar experience before, reading Heart of Darkness in high school.

conrad's most famous novel is a triumph, utterly hypnotic in its mastery of its prose, gripping and haunting.

chinua achebe's response to the novel is also a triumph, one of the finest examples of literary criticism i've encountered. if you want to write about how something is problematic, get the hell off Tumblr, because here is your model, a thunderous essay that tackles Conrad's novel, not by dismissing its prowess or jumping straight to the attack, but by acknowledging all its strengths in their entirety and then systematically revealing the hideous racism at its foundation, a rotten core that Achebe effectively argues diminishes the value of a novel entire—a book that includes uncomfortable racism can still be great in a "product of its time" way, but a book whose whole premise relies on the dehumanization of such a swath of humanity...

i still admire Heart of Darkness. like i said, it's a triumph. and achebe's essay didn't destroy it for me—it made it to where i can read it with far more alertness, more attentiveness to what's being implied or unsaid. the writing is wondrously seductive, which is what makes it great, but also makes it so dangerous.

that same seductiveness is in The Atlantic piece. and merely being seductive is not wrong; we all long for stories we can lose ourselves in, long to connect with people we find incomprehensible. but we must remain alert.*

and i think a lot of Doing The Right Thing involves being alert in this way, building up walls against being seduced by wrongness. it reminded me a bit of this lovely bit from Professor Kuipers, where he explains why he doesn't accept military funding for his research. he acknowledges that the military can still access his research from the journals he publishes in and this his solution isn't perfect, and acknowledges he's somewhat privileged to be able to do this (e.g. funding has been tight but never desperately so), but he also makes it clear that, though it has not always been easy, he thinks the principle is important enough to draw a line in the sand for, because then he can truthfully say he's never accepted funding from a thing he considers to be a great evil, and perhaps inspire others to do the same.

there are many ways to be good, and this is one of them: start by being careful, being skeptical, and choosing the lines in the sand you will not cross. and once you've drawn that line, don't let clever storytellers seduce you into bending on what you know to be right.

* this gets into why i think English/literature is being taught Completely Wrong in high schools. i only read that essay because i was so fascinated by the novel that i scarfed down everything i could find remotely related to it. i think it's criminal to teach Heart of Darkness without also teaching that Achebe essay. and yet the teacher just hammered us on the most banal, facile, "find the literary device" ways of engaging with the book—"red represents blood/life-force in the novel", "Kurtz represents madness", and other stupid shit, rather than getting at the really messy, gritty shit the novel was begging you to tangle with.
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