Archive for November, 2009
I just finished reading Philippa Gregory’s A Respectable Trade and I’m feeling very sober.
The story, in brief, is about a Yoruban man, high in the government, who is out on a diplomatic mission and taken as a slave to England, where he is taught English by his owner’s wife in order to be resold as a house slave. He and the wife fall in love and she has a child but dies in childbirth. That’s the story in a nutshell.
I guess what makes it so poignant for me is that I never knew there were so many African slaves in England. I mean, I knew that England outlawed slavery and the slave trade before America did, so it stood to reason that there were some, but according to the book, there was at least “one black face in every village in England”. Reading other books about England’s history, I never got the sense that there were black people there at all. I mean, I’ve read Shakespeare’s Othello, but it’s written about a Moor, who I always assumed was a North African, maybe a tradesman. But I didn’t know there were so many slaves and freedmen in England. I didn’t know that so many black people had lived and grieved and died in a place I thought was more open-minded than my own country has been.
I don’t know why it matters that I didn’t know. It all happened a long time ago and there’s nothing I can do to change it now. I don’t even live in England. For that matter, when I told Kent about it, he said there were slaves in Europe as well, which I didn’t know. I’m trying to figure out why I’m upset about it, why it matters to me that people I didn’t know were slaves in a place to which I’ve never been, in a time three centuries ago. I know that there were slaves in America and that we’ve done quite badly by those from Africa, as well as those who owned this land before whites ever set foot on it. I guess I thought it was our problem alone, that it hadn’t infected the rest of the world so insidiously.
I guess I thought England and the rest of the world had kept their hands clean, or mostly so. I guess it couldn’t have been, because the whole world got rum and sugar from the Caribbean. When there was a sugar tax that the American colonists boycotted, they were also boycotting the slave trade, but that wasn’t why they did it; it didn’t even enter into their calculations. But I thought that slavery in England was a short-lived, small thing.
And I guess I’m upset because there’s one more thing that can’t be put right. There’s been people conquering and conquered as long as there’s been history, but never on such a continental scale, for so many years.
There’s no way to fix what the white people have done. We can’t give the land back to the Native Americans. We can’t put Africa back the way it was. It’s like an egg that’s been broken. All we can do is get the best out of it we can and move on, but if there’s any “best” left, I don’t know.
I can’t change history by regretting it. I don’t know what I can change. It’s arrogant to think I can change anything.
I guess I can only go on as I have been doing, but with a larger reason:
To support those in the world who have less than I in so many ways,
To teach my students of all colors that they are the same people underneath,
To change one thought, one idea, one action, one person, one life at a time.
Starting with mine.