Sometimes, You Have to Read Something Depressing
A couple days ago, I wished that Olaudah Equiano’s book would get more interesting soon. Well, I got my wish, and now I feel a little bad about that. You see, Olaudah Equiano is writing about his own experiences. As a slave. I should have known it wouldn’t get interesting in a good way.
So instead of being bored as I read, now I was depressed. And I almost wished that he could have continued boring me for another hundred pages so I could write a bad review and be done with it. But what would be the point of that? If he hadn’t written it, someone else would have. Because it happened. No amount of sticking your head in the sand is going to change that.
We’ve been talking about slavery quite a bit in my American Lit class, and I think my teacher brought up an interesting point. She said that slavery is “our national wound.” (Our meaning the US) That idea makes a lot of sense to me. In our short history, it’s the one big evil that stands out. And we’re rightfully ashamed of it.
But now that it’s in the past, what do we do with it? We certainly can’t pretend it never happened, and it would not be at all wise to ignore it. We have to learn about the past so that we can shape the future.
I thought that I knew all about slavery. I’ve spent years of history classes covering the topic again and again. I’ve seen it in movies and on tv. I’ve read about it in books, and after I read Beloved, I thought I’d seen it all. And it’s true that the plain facts that Olaudah presents match up perfectly with what I already knew. But as I was reading a certain passage, something struck me:
“Nor was such usage as this confined to particular places or individuals; for, in all the different islands in which I have been (and I have visited no less than fifteen) the treatment of the slaves was nearly the same; so nearly indeed, that the history of an island, or even a plantation, with a few such exceptions as I have mentioned, might serve for a history of the whole. Such a tendency has the slave-trade to debauch men’s minds, and harden them to every feeling of humanity! For I will not suppose that the dealers in slaves are born worse than other men … had the pursuits of those men been different, they might have been as generous, as tender-hearted and just, as they are unfeeling, rapacious and cruel.”
We find it so easy to denounce the slave owners, to say that they were evil people and be done with it. But when you put it in this broad scale perspective and realize that this was happening everywhere, in separate islands, on separate continents, which had very little contact with each other. And when you consider the possibility that these might have been good people under different circumstances, you begin to wonder whether there is something, some part of what it is to be human, that constantly threatens to unleash itself. Is there something deep down inside each of us just waiting for the proper circumstances?
What really gets me is the fact that, as Olaudah points out, many of these slave owners beat and mistreat their slaves not only for no apparant reason, but even against their own interests. I consider the Zimbardo prison experiment. We are all familiar with the saying “power corrupts”, but it never really hits home until you hear the stories. And then it all starts to sink in.
Slavery isn’t some isolated incident from the past, it represents a part of the human experience. And so does the Halocaust and the Rwandan genocide and every war that’s ever been fought. And I hate reading about these things because they never fail to make me feel absolutely awful. But there is a reason that these stories must be shared. Sometimes you have to leave your little bubble and face reality. Sometimes you have to read something depressing. Because if we don’t take seriously our duty to understand the how and why as best we can, where will we be when the next great evil threatens to rise?