Topic: Professions & Institutions

Fun with Slavery

Although some universal ethical truths take a remarkably long time to be recognized, there are universal ethical truths. One of them is that slavery…the ownership and forced subjugation of human beings…is wrong by virtually any ethical system yet devised. Despite this, ninth-grade students at Cary Christian School in Cary, South Carolina read “Southern Slavery, As It Was,” for two days when they study the American Civil War. The goal of the booklet is to show that Southern slavery in the days before the Confederacy was kinder and gentler than those lying Yankee historians would have you believe. In fact, for most slaves, it was a sweet deal. Or so the book claims.

School administrators explain that the book is read to provide a “balanced perspective” in opposition to such anti-slavery works as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and that students can then “make up their own minds”.

Ah, balance! I suppose the lucky students at Cary can also look forward to reading “Sailing Off the Edge of the Earth,” to balance those pesky rumors about the world being round; “Auschwitz: One Big Happy Family,” to point out the neglected good side of the Nazi death camps; and “How I Lost 70 Pounds and Increased My Cardio Fitness on the Bataan Death March,” which tells the true story of the so-called forced march as the challenging athletic event it really was.

Let’s look at some quotes from “Southern Slavery, As It Was”:

  • “Slavery as it existed in the South was not an adversarial relationship with pervasive racial animosity. Because of its dominantly patriarchal character, it was a relationship based on mutual affection and confidence.”
  • “There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.’
  • “Slave life was to them a life of plenty, of simple pleasures, of food, clothes, and good medical care.”
  • “Nearly every slave in the South enjoyed a higher standard of living than the poor whites of the South, and had a much easier existence.”

Wow! This slavery thing sounds great! How do I sign up?

I will not raise my blood pressure further or insult our readers’ literacy by taking the time to refute this idiocy (to just touch on one source mentioned by the school administrators, every horrific incident described in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was meticulously documented by Harriet Beecher Stowe using contemporary newspaper reports from Southern papers. Most of them were considerably worse than her fictional versions of them.), except to say that this is not “the other side of the story,” as a mother with two young future white supremacists in attendance at Cary told the Charlotte News and Observer. It is nothing more or less than an unwelcome rerun of the mythology spread by slave owners when the “peculiar institution” was under attack before 1860.

“Slavery is wrong, no doubt about that,” says Cary’s Principal, Larry Stevenson. Well, thanks for the clarification, Larry, but you have a peculiar way of showing it. A book that describes Southern slavery as a Nirvana of racial harmony (with whites in charge, natch) certainly doesn’t seem likely to leave students with a firm grasp of the practice’s moral and ethical shortcomings. Despite Principal Stevenson’s lip service to slavery’s evils, this is the real point. Cary is a fundamentalist Christian school, and the Old Testament pretty much gives the green light to slavery. This is a big problem for those who take the Bible literally, as you might imagine. If one concedes that the Bible is, shall we say, a bit behind the times regarding one human being owning and completely dominating another, then that creates the possibility (horrors!) that it might be off-track elsewhere as well, such as its condemnation of homosexuals (not to mention its endorsing the killing of non-virgin brides).

Yes, it is hard indeed being a Fundamentalist. Even William Jennings Bryan, as he stood against Clarence Darrow as the champion of the Word in the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial,” found himself admitting that the Bible sometimes spoke in metaphorical terms. From not explaining the existence of dinosaur fossils to measuring days before the sun was created, taking the Bible literally requires Herculean effort. And all you Fundamentalists out there are welcome to take up the challenge, and best of luck to you. But when this quest causes a school to try to make an absolute wrong appear to be just hunky-dory, and to peddle this obscene distortion to kids, there’s no room for “tolerance.” Making an evil practice seem benign blurs ethical lines that must not be blurred. Blurring the ethical lines around slavery cannot avoid having the result of promoting bigotry and a lack of respect for the freedom of others. Cary’s pro-slavery book is bad history, and marks it indelibly as a bad school that cannot be trusted with young minds.

Not every issue has two sides. Regarding some wrongful practices, the culture has to speak with one voice, loud and clear. Slavery is one of these, and efforts to tell “the other side” are only thinly veiled attempts to justify the unjustifiable.

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