Growing up in an environment where modern buildings and sophisticated forms of modern travel are interspersed with ancient ruins, medieval churches, and modern roads that follow the routes built by Roman conquerors gives a person a certain feeling about history.
Add to that, giant stone circles, 5,000 years or more old, and in some places, caves with wall paintings, some 32,000 years old, and history becomes part of the ongoing stream of human life. As a child I wanted to be able to time travel to the past, just for a day, to see the people who had created these treasures and to know how they lived, talked, smelled, and what they ate. I would say that I felt connected to the history of my home country.
Some people blanch at the very use of the word “his-story,” but as most of us realize “he” can do little without “she” so we can focus on other aspects of the topic. The main problem with history is that it is all about us, we poor mortals who bumble through life doing what we think we need to do for ourselves, our families, our country and the world. In the present time of instability, polarization, and pandemic, we are easily drawn into a diversion from current problems into thinking about our nation’s past misdeeds. Sad to say humanity does not change much over time and some of what we see in our nation’s past are the sins of humanity over millennia. One repeating sin is that of slavery and its repercussions, which have lasted through the ages, spawning, and fostering troubles generation after generation.
Slavery is mentioned in the Bible. Beginning in the book of Genesis Ch. 37 and continuing for several more chapters, the story of Joseph is a clear description of selling a person for money with an indication that this was not a novel idea but was considered a common action. Accounts of slavery or the use of slave labor are common in Greek and Roman descriptions of everyday life, financial and military records, and literature. European nations used slaves on plantations in African colonies, the Caribbean islands, the islands of the Indian Ocean, and India as well as for house servants in the home countries of the landed gentry. It should be no surprise that the same happened in North America since many of the early settlers were second sons of the English nobility, often in debt to the Crown. What better way to escape debtors’ prison than a trip across the Atlantic to live on huge plantations, larger than any in their home countries. These were not, for the most part, people used to hard physical labor anywhere, especially in a new and very different environment. For them, slave labor was the answer.
We may think that we have gone beyond those times and are more socially conscious but I think that Covid-19 and the meatpacking industry have shown that we still have a form of slave labor. The pandemic has highlighted the appalling work conditions that exist in some of our meat processing plants and other labor-intensive industries too. There may be wages, but the conditions of work recently uncovered by the pandemic, and the pressure to come to work, well or sick, is not much better than slave labor. The rapid attempts to improve the working conditions and make everything look as sanitized as possible is nothing more than window-dressing to reassure the consumer market that the meat products are edible and safe. Work on the cutting line has changed little because of its very nature.
These miserable work conditions are nothing new. There have been other similar examples in modern times such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911 in which 145 young immigrant women workers were trapped in a burning clothing factory. Locked doors, unusable elevators, and stairways deliberately blocked to discourage theft, prevented their escape. The thing that repeats through history is that “slaves” or workers treated as such, are mostly poor, uneducated, and foreign. In Biblical and Classical times they were often captives of war; today they are often fleeing war in their homelands, either war between states or war among thieves and drug lords.
So what do we do? Some people demonstrate against present or past injustices such as slavery. Others propose legislation and work to correct social injustice. Some people try to remove overt physical objects that remind us of, or celebrate, past historical events that many today find shameful. Some try to find ways to give financial reparation to those descendants of past injustice. These actions may appease the consciences of those of us in the present time but they do nothing to change history. I believe a bolder and stronger thing to do would be to acknowledge the past and accept the history of the United States is no better than that of any other country. All of the European countries were opportunistic adventurers, enslaving native peoples and destroying their cultures and natural environments long before the Jamestown settlement in 1607. We could use our knowledge and responsibility for past injustice to demand that today’s society be more equitable and accepting, providing opportunities for all people to live safe, healthy, and productive lives.
Understanding our history should help us avoid repeating it.