Monday, April 18, 2011

After Slavery?


In the Torah is written a timeless story: a story of a people held in bondage in Egypt. These people were my people. Sometimes they are referred to as the "chosen" people, but I don't really believe that. We were not any more "chosen" than anyone else; until we can see that those who held us in bondage were just as important in God's eyes as we were, then we will never be truly whole. I do know that these people were of my blood, of my family line, my great, great, great, great, great, great, etc. (to the hundredth power) grandmothers and grandfathers. These people were held in a system of slavery, living under the rule of the Pharaoh of Egypt. A man named Moses courageously led our people out of Egypt, out of slavery. He led us as we were chased into the howling desert, towards a very uncertain and unknowable future. Through shared sacrifice and struggle we became a people: Jewish people. A religion and way-of-life formed that would be alternately celebrated and attacked for the next thousands and thousands of years, all the way down to our present day. Jews around the world may have never fully escaped persecution, but for many of us, especially here in the U.S., we have moved, step-by-step, generation-by-generation, towards a more peaceful coexistence with peoples different than ourselves. Many of us, like myself, descend from a mix of Jews and Christians and non-believers. Faith for me is a matter of choice, not a matter of survival as it was for those who came before me and left their lives behind them in Egypt.

As I type this essay on the first night of Passover, I am munching on my first leaf of matzoh (unleavened bread; a kind of bland cracker really). Peanut butter and jelly style. :) In the desert outside of Egypt, my people did not have peanut butter and jelly. But today we eat the matzoh (however which way we like it!) to remember that when the opportunity came for the Jewish slaves to flee from Egypt, they did not have time for bread to rise. They had to gather their loved ones and a few things to munch on (like unleavened bread) and hit the road as fast as possible. So on Passover we eat matzoh, and refrain from eating leavened grains, for eight days so as to bodily re-experience and reimagine what it must have been like for our ancestors to courageously leave everything behind them and escape from slavery. Eating matzoh is not suffering, not like slavery. In its dry, bland taste and stale texture, though, it reminds us that liberation too can be a period of suffering, a period perhaps just as hard as slavery, a period when the ordered world becomes disordered, and the future appears so uncertain and so unknown that it is scarier than the past. Munching on matzoh makes me want to be just a little bit braver, a little bit more courageous, just like my ancestors were.


On Passover pasts, I, as the youngest child, used to have to ask the four questions. This was part of the tradition of the seder (the shared meal enjoyed on the first night of Passover, a meal that I had no one to share with this year). One question was always "What makes this night different than all other nights?" But this year we should be asking "What makes this year different than all other years?" I would answer: this year is the 150th anniversary of the start of the U.S. Civil War. Because of this, people are thinking about slavery more now than we have in many decades. Now we want to open up old wounds and ask the age-old question: was the Civil War fought over slavery, or states' rights, or both? (See an interesting poll of Americans' opinions on these sort of questions.) I am not a historian of the war itself, but I feel I can safely say that the war was about a lot of things, and since it has ended it has been reinterpreted to be about even more things. The search for one golden answer - a search deemed necessary by some on both the left and the right sides of the political spectrum - is not true to history. History is messy, complicated, and ambiguous. There are no easy answers, and there shouldn't be.

But one fact of the Civil War is certain: slavery was legal before it, but illegal after it. African-Americans got their freedom. Historians of the Reconstruction period (1865-1877) know that "freedom" for these men and women was not all that it was cracked up to me. Blacks made incredible gains in the late 1860s only to see them torn down throughout the 1870s as the country settled into what was a comfortable retreat from radicalism and the embrace of a new system of racial politics called "Jim Crow." But there are parallels to the Jewish "exodus" here. Liberation, as I said, provides its own hardship. It often involves steps forward, steps back, and no consensus as to where the road is heading. In African-American history we can look forward to the 1950s and 1960s and see the incredible Civil Rights Movement as a second "exodus" from slavery. But that liberation, too, had its quagmires. Fits of radicalism are so often followed by fits of conservatism. We get stuck in complacency as we begin to celebrate the past more than we keep pushing forward towards the future. This Passover we might pat ourselves on the back for the successful exodus of African-Americans from slavery and segregation over two long centuries, but where are we now?

A recent book (The New Jim Crow - haven't read it, but heard lots about it) states that more African-Americans are held behind bars in prisons today than were enslaved in the 1850s. An upsetting statistic, no? I myself drove past two prisons - euphemistically termed "correctional facilities" - today on a drive around upstate New York. The Schenectady County Correctional Facility sits on the bottom of a hill below the neighborhood where the highest percentage of black families live. This is in my hometown: Schenectady, NY. I wanted to be able to see into the windowless facility and see the men inside. Why are they spending the first night of Passover in prison? Are they slaves? Serving what master? There is a long history in America of prisoners being used as forced labor - it's called convict labor. It is slavery. Forced labor under penalty of confinement or violence without any compensation goes by no other name here or anywhere else. So as I munch on matzoh, I remember the men and women behind bars tonight. I cry for them because the majority of them are there for sometimes minor offenses (possession of drugs), and those who are there for grave offenses were only led towards committing those offenses because of the poverty and disadvantage of the household or neighborhood they grew up in, or dare I say because of the color of their skin or the accent of their English...because the dominant white society never believed in them, and so they never believed in themselves. I munch my matzoh angrily tonight because more of the taxes I give to my government this month will go towards maintaining prisons rather than teaching tomorrow's potential prisoners the skills they need to fight back against slavery.


Following the U.S. Civil War, slavery was illegal in the United States. It had become illegal in many other developed nations earlier, and by the end of the nineteenth-century, as far as I know, slavery was - at least on paper - illegal throughout much of our world. The end of the African slave trade in the early nineteenth century, and the abolition of slavery throughout the nineteenth century, provided African migrants and their descendants with an "exodus" story to rival that of the Jews. But what happened next? Did all the cotton plantations in the south go bankrupt and turn back into meadows, forests, and swamps? Did all the sugar plantations in the Caribbean turn back into tropical forests? In an age when New World sugar, cotton, and labor made the world go round, who would do the work now that the Africans were "free"?

One of the often untold stories of slavery in the Americas is how quickly African slaves were replaced by Chinese and other Asian "coolies." Chinese had been emigrating across the Pacific in great numbers ever since the late 1840s (to California for gold) and early 1850s (when "coolie" importation began on Hawaiian sugar plantations). This was a time when Chinese laborers were also brought to Peru to mine guano and to Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean to harvest sugarcane. A great book on the late nineteenth century Chinese experience in Cuba is Lisa Yun's The Coolie Speaks, which uses the writings of Chinese plantation laborers to paint a picture of these men's cruel sufferings as"coolies." Being a "coolie" meant working as a contract laborer. The "contract" often involved an agreement whereby the laborer was bound to work for an employer for x amount of years until they could pay off the costs of their transport and other expenses. But coolies soon discovered that under conditions of wage slavery on the plantation they could never raise enough funds to purchase their freedom. Abolitionists who had fought against African slavery in the New World rapidly came to recognize that contract labor involving Chinese, Indians, and others was pretty much the same thing as slavery. Yun writes of Chinese men who suffered so deeply under this system that they threw themselves into the boiling pots of the sugar refinery just to avoid having to live another day as a slave to capitalism.

I recently finished reading another book called The New Chinatown about labor conditions in New York City's Chinatown in the 1980s and 1990s. Through this book I learned that the film I reviewed in my last post, Take Out (2004), was pretty much spot-on about modern-day living and working conditions for Chinese immigrants in the United States. Immigrants from Fujian - especially from the city of Fuzhou - are paying tens of thousands of dollars to be smuggled illegally into the U.S. in hopes of making money for their families back home. But the reality - much as it was for Chinese "coolies" who took the same path over a hundred years ago - is that these men inevitably find it impossible to raise that kind of money once they arrive in New York. Immigrant men are hired by Chinese restaurants and women hired by garment factories. Their Chinese employers take ruthless advantage of them - even though it may be construed as their employers giving them a fair chance at work where otherwise they could not fairly compete against English-speaking non-Chinese laborers in the marketplace. But when it comes to breaking U.S. labor laws, this is not a fair excuse. The Fujianese are paid less than minimum wage, receive no benefits, are pressured - sometimes violently - to refrain from unionizing. They work well over forty hours a week. Unions and government officials and agencies alike largely steer clear of helping these men and women because they believe that Chinatown functions as a self-regulating city within a city. But that way of thinking only allows the most powerful elite of the neighborhood to set the undemocratic rules for everyone else. A simple look at a map of NYC census data and we see that the lowest household incomes, the lowest monthly rents, the lowest levels of educational attainment on the lower half of the island of Manhattan are congregated in Chinatown. Therefore, disengagement with Chinatown by those on the outside of the Chinese community does not help those within. It only serves to continue to allow wage slavery to fester in the sores of this city.

I will chew another slice of matzoh now. To remember all the illegal immigrants in NYC tonight who have gotten themselves in between a rock and a hard place and are subjected to the most ruthless exploitation. The men and women from Fujian who came here illegally remain enslaved to the "snakeheads" - the human traffickers who bribed them here in the first place. In turn, they remain enslaved to their employers in the vain hope of earning enough wages in order to one day pay off the "snakehead" so that they may then begin saving for their own future. But in the meantime they are just treading water, living in modern-day slavery in a city that never sleeps, a city that moves so fast that no one notices them here among us, holding together our world of fast cars and bright lights with their aching backs and tired hearts. I don't even know how to lead these men and women out of slavery, or who their Moses will be, or when or why their "exodus" will take place, but this Passover I hope that liberation comes to them - my neighbors - as soon as can be.


Finally, I bite off another piece of matzoh tonight for all the animals enslaved in factory farms. I read a great book in college called The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery. When I proposed to my colleagues and administrators that someone should teach a course on the history of animal slavery so that we young folks could go out in the world with the tools necessary in order to abolish this evil practice, I remember one faculty member pulling me into his office where he said that: he appreciated my passion and my ideas, but calling agriculture "animal slavery" was going too far. I disagreed. I still disagree.

I cannot hash out all the arguments that have gone back and forth for decades about whether or not animals are enslaved. I have tried to be careful and considerate in this post in my discussion of prisoners and wage laborers so as not to fully conflate these conditions with actual slavery, but I hope rather to suggest that the similarities between these various conditions might be more significant and useful to our own thought and action than analyzing the differences between them. For many readers, the largest leap might be from considering human slavery to considering animal slavery. On Passover many families will recognize the parallels between our story - the Jewish "exodus" - and the story of African-American history. Fewer, I bet, will think of the plight of Mexican and Chinese immigrants in the U.S. today and the unjust labor conditions under which they work. Many will outright disagree with me when I say that: these people should not be blamed or ignored for coming here illegally, but they should rather be unionized, protected by our laws, educated of their rights - their God-given human rights that transcend the policies and politics of any party, any state, any nation. But how many will join me in calling for animal liberation as well?

When humans are held in slavery, they are confined to a proscribed space and their mobility is severely limited. Their offspring automatically become the property of their parents' master; the reproductivity of the female human fully becomes the productivity of the masters' economy; in what Foucault has called "bio-power" or "bio-politics," the master controls the women's body in order to make her produce more human labor for the benefit of the master's economy. On factory farms, animals are similarly confined indoors and sometimes in cages - such as the battery cages chickens are held in - where their mobility is so limited that they cannot even fully extend their wings or turn themselves around. Imagine being forced to stand in one position for weeks on end. With extreme pain, your muscles slowly atrophy until they can no longer function. Watch a video of a chicken removed from a battery cage after weeks of confinement and you can see that the bird cannot move on its own; furthermore, its bones have become so brittle, even gentle human handling at that point will break them. Consider pigs or cattle: the females' reproductivity is controlled by the master with fine tuning. She is continually re-impregnated again and again until her body can no longer serve that role. She becomes a machine, tuned to the needs of a human economy rather than to the call of her own body.

My definition of slavery is a state wherein a sentient being is held against his or her will and forced to labor for the benefit of someone else. African-Americans did this in the early nineteenth-century South; Chinese did this in late nineteenth-century Cuba; Chinese in Chinatown today do this, although with varying degrees of "freedom." But I am not yet convinced that seeking gainful employment - which is what today's immigrants hope for - is an exercise in "freedom." Is it not just because we live in such a class-stratified society that those on the bottom are forced to work not just one job, but two, or three, to work over forty hours a week, or to accept substandard wages, etc.? Is it not just because of global capitalism and global "savage inequalities" (the phrase is from Jonathan Kozol's book about socio-economic inequality in the U.S.) that certain citizens of the world must break laws in order to find work, to find wages, to somehow keep their families alive? Karl Marx saw things for what they were, and so presciently saw them for what they would become when he described a global system of slavery disguised as a fair handshake between capital and labor in an economic marketplace. But is wage-slavery slavery?

Anyway, I should get back to my point about animals, but the matzoh is beginning to make my mouth dry and I need to get up, stretch, and drink water. Moses and my ancestors did not have the luxury of tap water in the desert. The truth is that they probably had more access to water and good food (like leavened bread) in Egpyt - in slavery - than they did on the long march to freedom. I am reminded once again that liberation can be just as hard as slavery. The point of this essay was to argue just that: that global "liberation" has been a long and arduous march, and in many ways a failed one, too. Liberation did not really occur after African slavery was abolished in the Atlantic World, nor after the "coolie" system was abolished in the Pacific World. The best efforts of Socialists, Communists, and Anarchists in the twentieth-century also did not abolish slavery. And even the best efforts of vegans and vegetarians have made little real impact on the global abolition of animal slavery. So as we remember the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War, or the anniversary of the Jewish "exodus" from Egypt that we celebrate tonight as Passover, we must keep close to our hearts the understanding that there was no time in history "after slavery." Slavery still lives with us. Slavery is the history of now. Sex slavery and sex trafficking are perhaps the most well-known examples, but we should also consider the exploitation of illegal immigrants, of prisoners, and of animals as serious threats to justice, equality, and righteousness in our world.

If you are celebrating Passover this week, please join with me in remembering all who are oppressed and all who are enslaved. Also please consider doing something - I don't know what, but be creative!! - to help ease the lives of those living today in slavery, or to help them in their liberation as they head out into the desert.


  1. Such appropriate reflections. If I had a seder to go to tonight, I'd want to read this whole post to the group gathered there (instead, I'm ignoring my Jewish-ness to go to a Decemberists concert). I always think that the Jewish holidays I'll want to really celebrate in earnest in the future are the ones that carry with them larger values that I want to uphold and make central to my future family. Passover is definitely foremost among those holidays, but I always struggle to make the connections explicit and to situate the practice of celebration within the larger stories I want to tell. This blog post begins that work, and I am grateful for it. Happy Passover.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Anna. I like Passover, too! It is my favorite Jewish holiday because I feel it not only reaches back to lovely traditions but also pushes forward towards a hopefully better world for the future. But this year my family had no seder, no readings, no thoughtful conversations. I guess my seder has instead gone digital! ;) But really, I wish I could have shared a big meal with friends and had deep, penetrating conversations about slavery past and present. I think Passover calls on us to be vigilant about these issues, and the least we can do is tune our mind to slavery for one week out of the year. Maybe you and I will get the chance to share a seder together on some future day and we and our loved ones can have such a conversation! (I wish I got to share good meals with good friends as often as it sounds like you do there in madison!)

    I am grateful for you and your writings, my friend. Happy Passover!

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