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.

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