Monday, April 25, 2011

The Essence of Slavery

I really like Ned Sublette's books, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square and The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans. Ned Sublette is a truth teller with a very pointed way of telling the truth. One truth he tells often is the truth about black slavery and servitude in the South. He gives the most poignant definition of slavery I have ever read or heard on page 216 of The World That Made New Orleans.

At this point in his book, Ned Sublette is talking about the possibility that Thomas Jefferson had sex with his slave Sally Hemings and fathered children by her, an accusation indignantly denied by many historians. Although no one knows for sure whether Jefferson did or did not have sex with his slave, Ned Sublette believes that he very well could have done so. Here is what Ned Sublette says on page 216 of The World That Made New Orleans:

Of course he could have. Whether Jefferson exercised his option or not, he could have sex with Sally Hemings whenever he wanted. The matter of her consent was irrelevant, because she could not refuse.

Because that's what slavery was.

I find that sentence so poignant: Because that's what slavery was. Ned Sublette goes on to say that the word rape really doesn't describe the reality of sex between a master and a slave. Why not? Because a slave does not possess her own consent. That is slavery.

And finally, Ned Sublette says that if Thomas Jefferson were tried in a court of law for the crime of rape with a top-notch attorney, he would be acquitted because there is no definitive evidence. But if he were a poor man with a court-appointed attorney and quite a bit of circumstantial evidence, he would likely accept a plea bargain, which would involve a guilty plea and a reduced sentence. And then Ned Sublette ends his discussion like this on page 217:

But then, no one has accused Jefferson of a crime. After all, you can do with your property as you like.

Yes, slaves had no recourse. They could not be raped - after all, they did not possess their own consent. They could not complain about their treatment - after all, an owner can do with his property whatever he pleases. Ned Sublette is right. That was the unbearable, horrifying truth of slavery.

Harry Potter: House Elves

The fourth Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, has a lot to say about house elves. Hermione discovers, to her dismay, that house elves are basically slaves. They work for no pay and never have vacations. What is more, house elves claim to be happy with their lot. They are horrified when Hermione suggests that they should be paid for their work. We are good, self-respecting house elves who would never accept pay, they exclaim. We are happy to serve . . . and serve . . . and serve . . . and serve.

I believe that J. K. Rowling wonderfully captures here the master's fantasy about his slaves or servants. What an ideal picture - the happy and grateful servant who just loves to serve the master. On the plantation: I treat my slaves well. See how happy they are. In the 1950s and 1960s (oh, do I remember this): Our Negroes down here are happy. We're good to our Negroes. Don't y'all northerners come down here stirring up trouble. Well, black people had to be "happy" if they knew what was good for them. They had to smile at white folks and "know their place."

The happy house elf is a fantasy. This creature exists only in the fantasy world of the Harry Potter novels. Real-life slaves and servants with second-class citizenship are not happy about it.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Harry Potter: Time Travel

In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azakaban
, Harry and Hermione travel backwards in time to save the lives of Sirius Black and the hippogriff Buckbeak.

Here is what happens. Harry, Hermione, and Ron find themselves, all exhausted and Ron with a broken leg, back in the infirmary of Hogwarts, having done their best to save Sirius and Buckbeak. But it is apparent that everything that needed to be done to accomplish this has not been done. Professor Dumbledore arrives and urgently instructs Harry and Hermione to use Hermione’s time turner to turn back time, relive the last three hours, and accomplish the remaining things necessary to save Sirius and Buckbeak. Professor Dumbledore further instructs them that, as they relive the events of the last three hours, it is vital that they not be seen,

As Harry and Hermione turn back time and retrace their steps, they see themselves living through the same events the first time. They see their first-time selves doing all the things that they actually did the first time they lived through these events. And they take great care to stay out of sight of their first-time selves. So their first-time selves are not aware of their second-time selves, but their second-time selves are able to see their first-time selves and stay out of their sight.

A very interesting thing happens at a crucial point in these three hours. The first time around, Harry needed to chase away some very dangerous creatures called dementors. He tried hard to do the spell necessary to summon a patronus spirit, who would dispel these monsters. But he simply couldn’t manage this advanced spell. Right at the crucial moment, though, a patronus spirit did appear and dispel them. Harry could see that the patronus had been summoned by a figure on the other side of the lake, a figure who looked remarkably like himself and whom he took to be his father, even though Harry’s father had been dead for twelve years. Harry believed that someone his father or his father’s spirit had come to help him in his hour of need.

The second time around, at this same crucial point, Harry finds himself on the opposite side of the lake, very close to the spot where he had seen the figure whom he took to be his father. He feels very excited because he knows that any moment his father, who died when Harry was only one year old, will appear and produce the saving patronus spirit. Harry is very eager to see his father. The moment when the patronus is needed is now here. But Harry’s father does not appear. And as things grow more urgent – with the patronus needed NOW – Harry has a sudden realization. He hadn’t seen his father from the other side of the lake – he had seen himself. Harry steps forward, pronounces the spell, and summoned a beautiful patronus spirit in the form of a stag, who quickly dispels the dementors. Harry himself summoned the saving patronus.

Harry later told Hermione that, the second time around, he knew that he could summon the patronus because he had already done it – that is, he had watched himself do it from the other side of the lake the first time he had lived through those three hours. I find this fascinating

It reminds me of something that Elizabeth Gilbert says toward the end of Eat, Pray, Love
. At this point, Elizabeth looks back on herself as she was before her travels to Italy (eat), India (pray), and Indonesia (love). She had felt trapped in a marriage that wasn’t working and that was asking her to be someone very different from who she was at her core – in other words, to deny her essential self. She felt tearful, distraught, and even despairing about this. At the end of the book, Elizabeth has come into her own. She has followed her own inner urgings, she has become much more balanced, and she is ready to commit herself to a deep love relationship that supports who she is.

Elizabeth imagines her stronger and more confident self as a living entity even in the past when she felt so trapped and despairing. At that earlier time, she believes that her future self was beckoning, was speaking to her soul, was calling her to follow her heart. She attributes key thoughts that came to her at that difficult time and inspired her to follow her heart to this future self. Her future self saw what Elizabeth could and would be and drew her to live into that vision.

It’s as though the future self saw what Elizabeth would do: those growth-producing steps were already formed and Elizabeth simply had to live them out. Similarly, the action of summoning the patronus was already there, and Harry Potter simply had to step into it. In Harry’s case, he had literally seen himself do this action and knew he could do it because he had done it – but he still had to choose the step of actually doing it.

This, of course, brings up the question of whether Harry could have made a different choice and done something other than what he had seen himself do when he was watching himself from the other side of the lake. I believe that the novel suggests that Harry could have made a different choice. What Harry knew to have happened did still have to be actualized by a real choice and a real action. If Harry had chosen differently in the second live-through of the events, I believe that the outcome would have been different. Professor Dumbledore, after all, did strictly warn Harry and Hermione that they must not be seen as they relived those three hours; he did not assume that they would not be seen just because they had already lived through the events the first time and had not seen their second-time selves. (The reason for this warning is that it would have been too shocking to Harry and Hermione for their first-time selves to see their second-time selves. After all, there is no telling what you would do if you walked into your home one evening only to find yourself sitting on the sofa in your living room!

Now, back to Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea about the future self. I find this, too, fascinating. Perhaps I have a future self who is calling me to be the fulfillment of my heart’s deepest desires about myself. This future self has been calling to my frightened self whose life goal rises no higher than to make it from here to the grave as painlessly as possible. This is a far cry from a much more worthy life goal: to live passionately, to love deeply, to give freely. I think it is very helpful to be aware of this future self and to make conscious choices in line with this future self’s voice.