Learn about slavery in Co-Lin class

Published 12:24 am Tuesday, January 5, 2016

It’s a classic line from a classic movie, Orson Welles’ The Third Man: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare and terror, but they produced the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had 500 years of brotherly love, and produced the cuckoo clock.” With apologies to the Swiss, the greater point is that, out of suffering and turmoil, possibly, come grace and beauty.

Antebellum Natchez was not Renaissance Florence, but it did possess a certain grace, and most certainly that grace came twinned with suffering. Because in very large part, it was based on chattel slavery. The system of bondage that developed in the southern states of the world’s Great Republic was one of the largest, most intensely profit-driven, and relentlessly racialized systems of bondage in history. Not to mince words, each hoop skirt in Natchez was purchased at the cost of violent coercion and the cries of many a motherless child.

That blunt reality means that as we admire the artistry of the houses and gardens for which Natchez is famed, we cannot ignore the authentic sorrows carved beneath the faux painted grains of each antique door. That more intense focus won’t hinder an appreciation of Natchez’s history, it will deepen it, broaden it. Out of empathy for great suffering, maybe too, can come wisdom.

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Some say, though, that we should get over slavery, write it off as an unfortunate but long past stumble on humankind’s otherwise virtuous march toward freedom and prosperity.

Except that, according to many scholars, the enslavement of millions was essential to the development of that very freedom and prosperity for other millions. Moses Finley of Cambridge wrote of “the advance, hand in hand, of freedom and slavery” in ancient Athens. Yale’s Edmund Morgan said that in colonial Virginia, “the freedom of the free depended more than we like to admit on enslavement.” Stanford’s Gavin Wright places the slave labor sugar plantations of the Caribbean “at the center of the commercial revolution” that shaped modern capitalism. And Sven Beckert of Harvard emphasizes the role of slave-grown cotton as the essential raw material in both the British and American Industrial Revolutions. The eminent scholar David Brion Davis comes to the obvious if unsettling conclusion that “slavery was an intrinsic part of the ‘Rise of Western Civilization.” We can’t just “get over” slavery. Its legacies form the historical sinews of our political and economic systems.

And then, of course, there are the confounding issues of race. Speaking of American slavery specifically, historian Peter Parish said that antebellum southerners “learned to live with slavery by learning to live a lie.” When among “their own,” white masters and black slaves spoke plainly, but when talking to each other, they used evasive, coded words. They wore figurative masks to hide their real feelings, and “divided their lives into compartments.” But even now, long after abolition, the walls of those racially compartmentalized world views that slavery built still stand. At times, we still have radically different memories of “our” past, and so, radically different interpretations of present day events. We need a reconciliation. But in the familiar formula applied around the world, “truth” precedes “reconciliation.” We need to learn to live a common, accurate historical truth, beginning with the beginning, slavery.

As part of this ongoing effort, and in conjunction with Natchez’s Tricentennial, Copiah-Lincoln Community College will offer a non-credit class, “Slavery: from Natchez to the World,” a global, historical survey but with particular emphasis on the Antebellum South.

What do we know about slavery as an institution in South Carolina, but too in Cuba and Ottoman Constantinople? What of slavery as lived experience, from Angola in Louisiana to Angola in Africa? How did slavery in the Nabob’s Natchez compare with slavery in the Caesar’s Rome? We shall see what the best scholars have to say, on these and many other topics.

The class will meet on Tuesdays, 6 to 7 p.m., in the Convention and Visitors Bureau theater at 640 South Canal St., beginning Jan. 12 and continuing through April 19. For 15 classes, there is a $45 fee.

All are welcome. Please register in advance. Contact Emily Edwards at Co-Lin at 601-446-1103 or emily.edwards@colin.edu.


JIm Wiggins is a retired history instructor at Copiah-Lincon Community College.