Monday, November 08, 2010

Charleston, or Beauty isn't Everything

Charleston is the equivalent of a very beautiful, lazy, spoiled heir who never worked a day in his whole life. The very beautiful and graceful mansions, homes, and churches in their charming alleys and streets attest to the leisure and privilege of colonists-turned-planter millionaires who owed their wealth to the exploitation of slave labor, or "enslaved people" (more on this below).

(After the Civil War, Charleston's wealth came from banking and the stock market. But it was still dirty money. After all, it takes money to grow money, and most of Charleston's money that went into banking was old planter money.)

So, as beautiful as the city is, I can't help but feel some revolt, like when I visited the Vatican several years ago. The Vatican was the richest and most opulent place I had ever seen--it made Versailles look like a barn in comparison--and the Sistine Chapel was indeed breathtaking. But it was also a gross display of the wealth that the Roman Catholic Church could only amass by manipulating tenant-nobles and exploiting uneducated peasants.

To return to the term "enslaved people," I found it somewhat odd that our tour guide at Drayton Hall plantation was using this to describe slaves. She also used the term "enslaved laborers." A little digging around on the internet later, it appears that the terms she used are the current politically correct terms. I had no idea. I understand the intention and motivation behind "enslaved people;" namely, to emphasize that the slaves were, first and foremost, people, who, circumstantially, happened to be enslaved. There is a fair amount of debate, though--"enslaved people" versus "slaves."

For me, the question is, which term better accurately describes the injustice experienced? My first instinct is "slaves." No mention of the word "people" drives home the point that at that time, slaves were not considered people at all. They were chattel, or personal property like a chair or a horse. As a word, "slaves" leaves no room for euphemism or illusion.

That said, there is an argument against using the word "slaves" because it is grounded in the perspective of the slaveowner. That is, just because slave traffickers and owners didn't consider slaves to be people doesn't mean the word we now use to refer to slaves should reflect that too. "Enslaved people" restores humanity--and linguistic neutrality--where "slaves" does not.

I think I don't like "enslaved people" simply because it is incomplete. People who are enslaved are enslaved by somebody. Who? But perhaps this is the point: using "enslaved people" begins a dialogue, one that covers not only white planters and traders in the South, African traffickers in Africa, but also the slaves themselves and their lives before they were slaves. As long as this was a dialogue that was opened by African-Americans, cool. Otherwise, it would be like a convicted grand larcenist who had made off with hundreds of millions pointing his finger at the bank employee he'd paid a couple of million dollars to give him the account numbers and passwords he stole from. Ok, but, in the total scheme of the crime, it doesn't make him that much less culpable, does it?

Like a snowball turns into an avalanche, the day I really started to be bothered by all this, I also had a Hispanic tour guide in the Calhoun Mansion ask me if I could read Chinese. I said, nope. I'm not Chinese. He replied, "So you can't read Chinese? Where are you from?" I was going to say "New York,  Korean by ethnicity," but he cut me off and said, "So you don't read Asian? Fine, I thought you could help by reading Asian but nevermind." !!!!! THE STUPIDITY!!!!!!

On a happier note, the food here has been amazing, the sky has been crisp and blue, and we ran into friends we'd made back in the Dismal Swamp Canal. We'll stay for another day or two, then off to Florida.


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