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The Known World

I've been reading The Known World today, and I'm finding it very interesting. I'd known that there were blacks in the U.S. who owned slaves, but I'd never seen it discussed very much. I still don't understand it. The central character of this book is a former slave who himself owns slaves. Why would you do that? I get the impression that it was a slave/non-slave culture, and once you were not a slave, owning slaves made sense. It's what non-slaves did. At least, that's my impression so far. But I'm still confused.

Perhaps this book will answer my questions.



( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 23rd, 2008 05:57 pm (UTC)

A lot of slavery was motivated by economics. Slaves weren't cheap to buy, but buying, housing and feeding them was cheaper than paying wages, and if your cotton plantation had to compete in the marketplace with others that used slaves, you really had no choice, other than leave the cotton business, in which case someone who bought your plantation would certainly use slaves to work it, thus keeping the number of slaves in the system largely equal. Obviously, from an individual perspective, n slaves being owned by someone where someone is not you is morally much better than you owning them, but people often justify immoral behavior by, "If I don't do it, someone else will, and nothing will change."

I suspect that my wealthy WASP ancestors who came to this country in colonial times may have owned slaves, though I have no concrete evidence. My maternal grandmother's last name was Stokes, and there are a lot of African-American people named Stokes. I hope it's because my ancestors helped their ancestors to freedom on the Underground Railroad, and they took their name in gratitude, which I understand did happen. My ancestors were, after all, Philadelphia Quakers, most of whom were staunch abolitionists from the beginning, but people often behave immorally where large (for the time) sums of money are involved.

This is why I mostly talk about my Jewish ancestors rather than my WASP ancestors. :-)

Feb. 23rd, 2008 10:15 pm (UTC)
In this book, the central character is someone who had no need to own slaves. He was a successful shoe and boot maker, easily supporting himself. I think for him owning slaves was about status. He wanted to be "like a white person," and white people -- the respectable ones -- owned slaves. He was raised within slavery, and wasn't taught to think there was anything wrong with it. His parents (who bought their own freedom and his) were appalled when they found out he had bought his first slave, but I guess they hadn't instilled in him enough hatred for the practice to override the influence of his former master.
Feb. 23rd, 2008 11:00 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I never thought of slaves as a status symbol, but I guess they were. I remember reading a book where a wealthy free black man wanted to buy the freedom of a slave so he could marry her, but her mistress refused to sell her at any price. She, too, had no particular need for a slave, but the slave had been a wedding gift. The whole thing is so incomprehensible to me that it really makes my head spin.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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