Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Slavery, Liberation, Exodus

Here we are again, in the season of Passover. Above, you see a map of the Exodus route of the Israelites as they emerged from Mitzrayim, Egypt, the narrow place, and became "a people." I always find a lot of things to think about this time of year, in the context of the holiday and the Seder, even if I am not among the most observant or consistent of Jews.
     One thing I've been thinking about this year is the conversation I heard on the NPR program "Fresh Air"--the wonderful interviewer Terry Gross talking with Adam Goodheart, a historian who wrote a book about the origins of the Civil  War. The book is called 1861. Goodheart said a lot of things, but the one that stuck in my mind had to do with the institution of slavery. I've always understood how deeply slavery was intertwined with the economy of the South, but Goodheart pointed out that being asked to give up one's slaves was equivalent to having someone ask us to give up all our savings or our retirement accounts or all our liquid assets. He kept apologizing for how horrible that sounded, to be speaking of humans as liquid assets, but he was saying it so that we could get a better handle on the threat and panic and anger slave owners felt at the thought of having to give up their slaves. He was not apologizing for slavery or arguing in favor of it, of even saying that we should feel empathy for the slave owners. He was, however, explaining a point of view that I had not heard before.
     At least in part, then, because of the threat to a way of life, the war came, and many died and suffered and lost property of all kinds. And then the slaves were liberated, and the exodus began. As my husband points out every year, however, slavery still exists in many forms in the world. Liberation is far from complete. When will it ever be?

4 comments:

Jim Poznak said...

This past weekend we saw two sculptures in close proximity on the University of North Carolina campus. One, a statute of noble-looking Confederate soldier. The other, a sort of table, with many black slaves standing in a circle, shoulder to shoulder, arms outstretched overhead, supporting the top of the stone table. The nostalgia of the Confederacy juxtaposed with a memorial to slavery, occupying almost the same physical and mental space.

Susan Messer said...

Thanks, dear. I plan to write about those statues this week. Found photos of them. Great minds thinking alike . . .

Margaret P. said...

When I first moved to the D.C. area, I took a few weekends to explore the area. First I went to the coastal areas of Maryland, which is all about crabs and boats. Then I went into Virginia, which struck me as being all about Civil War battlefields. I found it so strange because, coming from the Midwest, I never thought about the Civil War. Here, it's still talked about all the time, like it happened yesterday and could happen again tomorrow.

Susan Messer said...

Brings to mind Faulkner's famous quote: "The past is never over; it's not even past" (or something along those lines). And on Pesach and at the Seder, the whole idea (or one of them) to to bring that experience of slavery and liberation back to life, experience it as if each one of us at the table had actually lived it. And so, I suppose, with the Civil War.