WEDNESDAY, JUNE 16, 2021
First, though, the navel-gazing: Surely, no serious person alive today is conflicted about the institution of slavery.
The institution was outlawed in this country in 1865. No one is suggesting that we bring some form of the practice back.
Over the many years, people have surely become acquainted with the pain, and with the horror, of the discarded institution. For that reason, we thought the prominent headline at Slate this weekend was perhaps a bit peculiar, though also instructive about the Hamptons-based values which prevail in Our Town:
Understanding the Horror of Slavery Is Impossible. But a Simple Cotton Sack Can Bring Us Closer.
Understanding the horror of slavery is impossible? At this point, for whom could some such act of comprehension even be slightly hard?
We thought that headline was slightly peculiar. We had a similar reaction to large parts of the interview which ran beneath it—an interview with Tiya Miles, who has written a book about an apparent horrific incident from the annals of slavery.
Parts of the interview struck us as odd, even as disrespectful, cold, dismissive, self-involved, insulting. That said, we thought Professor Miles offered some good advice as the interview came to an end.
Miles' book is built around an apparent historical artifact—a cotton sack which seems to tell the horrible story of an enslaved woman who was sold away from her place of bondage, never to see her 9-year-old daughter again.
As we noted yesterday, such horrible stories are legion, and have been for hundreds of years. Miles' book examines one such apparent incident—an apparent incident whose particulars can't be verified by normal historical practice.
According to Slate's headline, the cotton sack might help us come closer to understanding the horror of slavery. Late in her interview with Slate's Rebecca Onion, Miles offered some good advice.
The story that cotton sack seems to tell "felt like a gut punch to me," the Harvard professor said at that point in the interview. "All of a sudden I could imagine the vulnerability of my beautiful son, my own child, to this kind of horrific possibility," she also said, perhaps somewhat oddly.
Presumably, Professor Miles isn't going to be sold away from the Harvard campus—from the ivied preserve where so much embarrassing, incompetent and useless conduct occurs.
Her son won't be left without his mother in some such horrific manner. And of course, horrific stories like the one the cotton sack seems to tell have been well known for centuries, and are certainly well known to Miles.
In that sense, that initial statement by Miles could possibly seem a bit odd. But at that point, as she continued, she offered some sound advice:
MILES (6/13/21): But that kind of electric feeling of connection isn’t really an end goal of this kind of [historical] work. I certainly would not want people to become so lost in the horrors of this time period that the book is attempting to interpret that we forget that change is possible. The powerful emotions that we can feel, and that undertow of horror that can pull us under—they are real, they are true to the history of the experience, but we need pull ourselves back up again and look around in this moment and this time, and think about how we can apply the lessons of the past.
The apparent story told in Miles' book can produce "that kind of electric feeling of connection," the professor now said—but that isn't the point of her book.
The professor said she doesn't want readers to get so lost in the apparent story she tells that they "forget that change is possible." She didn't say what kind of change she had in mind.
According to the published transcript, Onion didn't ask.
The professor said we should "pull ourselves back up again" from our feelings about the apparent story told in her book. When we do, we should "think about how we can apply the lessons of the past."
The interview provides no suggestions as to what sorts of lessons we might draw from the past, or about how we might apply them. But in that moment, at least in principle, Miles was offering some very good advice.
As Miles continued, she continued to sketch out her point. At least in principle, her point was a good one. This is what she said:
MILES: Many people cry when interacting with this object, this story. These are gut-wrenching, heart-wrenching stories. These things happened, and our ancestors—some of them—lived through these atrocious things, and if it weren’t for their persistence and survival, many of us wouldn’t be here. When people who don’t share that ancestral past engage with these materials and also feel an empathetic, emotional reaction, when they recognize, “This is horrible. How could individuals, how could municipalities, how could states, how could the federal government be complicit in this brutality?”—I think that’s a good thing.
In that statement, Miles was responding to a question about how "white" people should respond to an apparent story like the one explored in her book.
(Onion had asked if it was "self-indulgent, in some way, for audiences to consume this kind of story of Black trauma—maybe especially white audiences?" In our view, that was an excellent question concerning all groups of readers. That was Miles' response.)
According to Miles, "white people" may recognize, while reading her book, that the events in question were "horrible." They may even ask themselves "how the federal government could be complicit in this brutality," the Harvard professor now said, speaking, perhaps a bit oddly, in the present tense.
In principle, we agree with the basic point the Harvard professor was making. People shouldn't wallow in the apparent story her book seems to tell. In principle, people should channel their feelings into an attempt to create "change" in the present day, presumably in societal or governmental practices.
In principle, we very much agree with that; the time is past for feel-good navel-gazing! But that type of gazing had been general up to that point in the interview, and neither Onion nor Miles seemed interested in asking what kinds of "change" this new book might inspire.
Frankly, we found much of this interview appalling, insulting, self-involved, uncaring, vile. In many ways, we think it was Slate and Harvard and even Our Town pretty much all the way down.
In part, we had that reaction because of other things we read, and didn't read, in Our Town's leading journals last week. Another such item appeared in Slate the very next day.
Another such item appeared the next day! More on our reactions tomorrow.
Tomorrow: As always, the top few percent. Plus, the navel-gazing!