MONDAY, JUNE 14, 2021
For whom could this task be hard?: Rebecca Onion writes about historical topics for the routinely ridiculous news org, Slate.
Onion's work isn't routinely ridiculous; we're not sure we've ever seen her present any such work at all. That said, we were struck by the link that was offered this weekend, at the top of Slate's front page, to her latest report.
Over the weekend, it was the featured report on Slate's front page. The link to the report said this:
Understanding the Pain of Slavery Is Impossible. But a Cotton Sack Can Bring Us Closer.
Included was a photograph of a cotton sack with some writing on it. Apparently, that cotton sack could bring us closer to understanding the pain of slavery.
The text of that front-page link struck us as a bit strange, and so we greedily clicked. Below, you see the start of Onion's report, fuller headline included:
Understanding the Horror of Slavery Is Impossible. But a Simple Cotton Sack Can Bring Us Closer.
Perhaps you saw this object on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History in the past few years—if you did, you won’t have forgotten it. It’s a cotton sack, much mended, with a hundred-year-old stitched notation: “ ‘My great grandmother Rose/ mother of Ashley gave her this sack when/ she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina/ it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of/ pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her/ It be filled with my Love always/ She never saw her again/ Ashley is my grandmother’—Ruth Middleton/ 1921.”
This object, known as “Ashley’s Sack,” is the subject of historian Tiya Miles’ new book, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. All That She Carried is a master class in the use of context in historical writing...
"Understanding the horror of slavery is impossible," the headline weirdly said.
There followed a discussion with Professor Miles about her latest book, which we haven't fully read. For today—for right now—let's focus on that headline.
"Understanding the horror of slavery is impossible," the headline weirdly said. Our question to you would be this:
For whom is it difficult, let alone impossible, to "understand the horror of slavery?" For what contemporary person would this task be hard in any way at all?
For whom will this task be hard at all, let alone "impossible?" What exactly could such a proclamation actually mean in the end?
Is it really hard for people today to imagine, understand or describe the horror of human enslavement? The horror of such enslavement as it was practiced earlier in our nation's history?
For whom would that be hard at all, let alone impossible/ Also, what could such a peculiar statement possibly mean?
If you read the conversation between Onion and Miles, you may start to get a sense of what that odd statement means, or at least is intended to mean. For now, let's focus on the second part of that headline—the part of the headline which says that the cotton sack in that photograph "can [at least] bring us closer" to some such understanding.
The second part of that headline seems to imply that we are somehow tasked with developing as complete an understanding of that question as we possibly can. We'll never fully understand, but we should continue to try.
We find that sentiment silly, on the borderline of appalling, for the following reason:
Onion's interview was featured on Slate's front page all say Sunday and right through to Monday morning. The day before, the front page of the New York Times featured a news report from West Point, Mississippi, a city with 11,000 residents and one public high school.
The news report concerned an unfortunate local dispute about an unfortunate question—who should have been valedictorian and salutatorian of the graduating class at West Point High School this year?
Due to a bureaucratic bungle or two, the high school ended up naming two co-valedictorians and two co-salutatorians. Because "race" was involved, or at least may have seemed to be involved, this unfortunate local dispute was placed on the Times' front page.
Stephanie Saul did the news report. Headline included, the news report started like this:
SAUL (6/12/21): Two Black Students Won School Honors. Then Came the Calls for a Recount.
At first, it seemed a joyous occasion. There was an audible gasp in the room, then boisterous cheering and applause when the announcement was made: Ikeria Washington and Layla Temple had been named 2021 valedictorian and salutatorian for West Point High School.
The president of the local N.A.A.C.P. in West Point, Miss., Anner Cunningham, smiled as the two young women, both standout students, were photographed. “It was a beautiful and proud moment to witness two young, Black ladies standing side by side given such honors,” Ms. Cunningham said.
Two black kids had won top honors, and this seemed to be surprising. Saul never explained, never tried to explain, why such a thing would have been surprising—would have produced an audible gasp—at a high school whose student population is 81 percent black.
(Saul didn't provide that statistic. Curious, we looked it up.)
As Saul continued, she discussed the unfortunate dispute which had broken out concerning rank in class. Because race seemed to be involved, it went to the front page of the Times, where Our Town's greatest newspaper encourages subscribers to admire their own self-evident virtue.
Slate was recommending the same type of self-involvement. Or so it may have seemed to us.
Saul's report included a striking photograph of Ikeria Washington, one of West Point High's co-valedictorians. As anyone can see from that beautiful photograph, Ikeria Washington seems like a very impressive young woman.
That said, we're sure the school is full of good, decent kids, including a lot of good, decent kids who aren't top superstar students. That said, why should it have been surprising to think that Washington had come out on top at West Point High this year?
Why did that produce an audible gasp? Stephanie Saul didn't ask.
Here in Our Town, we're currently deeply invested in discussions concerning "race." Over the weekend, one such discussion was posted at Slate, another in the New York Times, with about three hundred more in the Washington Post, where the highly tribal posing and posturing continues this morning.
Our self-involvement as we stage these discussions is perhaps our dominant trait. Do we care about the actual needs of children being born today (or going to high school)? Or do we mainly care about our own performances of virtue and our own moral greatness?
Race was everywhere in Our Town's major papers this weekend. We're performing our virtue around the clock now as we pretend to make up for massive amounts of lost time.
Race was everywhere in our newspapers. But so was the borderline bad faith, and the extremely limited judgment, which tend to dominate our treatment of such issues here in our self-impressed town. Our Town's basic instincts on such matters strike us as less than thoroughly helpful.
We'll hopskotch around on these topics this week. We may even tell you what our initial group of fifth-graders angrily said after they watched the film, The Forgotten Village, in the spring of 1970.
We may even revisit what was said about the sacred dead of the gulag. "They perish. They cannot be brought back." Or so Yevtushenko said.
Our Town's discussions of race are drenched in limited judgment and in something resembling bad faith. On the brighter side, anthropologists insist that self-referential behavior of this type is very much bred in the bone.
We're wired for such limited judgment, these top major experts all say.
"Understanding the horror of slavery is impossible?" On what planet could such an odd statement even begin to make sense? On what planet would that task even begin to be hard?
Tomorrow: As described in Roll, Jordan, Roll