Article of the Week: Slaves of History by Jori Lewis

Let’s play a word association game.

South Africa

Did you follow that with “America”? That’s alright. Most of us do. The narrative around slavery is very US-centric, and not just in the US. That’s why I found Slaves of History by Jori Lewis worth a read and picked it up for article recommendation of the week.

Not all slaves from Africa were taken to the new world. Many remained in Africa and this article talks about their descendants. Unlike in the US, the stigma of slavery continues to hound the descendants of slaves in West Africa, particularly in Senegal from where the writer reports.

Black Americans do not feel shame about slavery; they feel anger or sadness or any number of other emotions. The shame is for others; it is the collective shame of the US. Slavery is our history, but it is not who we are. In Senegal, the stigma of being a descendant of a slave still holds strong. For people of slave origin, their history is an open secret, one that is often difficult to speak out loud.

The hierarchy still exists. And although it is breaking in piecemeal ways, it isn’t quite gone yet.

We know that there is an inequality between us and that they are above me. There is an unwritten code of conduct. I know my limits. I know what I have the right to do and what I do not. And I don’t need anyone to teach me a lesson.

People of slave descent cannot become the village chief or imams in the mosque.

Even running for political office, which is theoretically possible, is a bit off-limits in his mind. ‘Most of the descendants of slaves know their limits and they don’t even try to become candidates for elected office, even if they have the right,’ he said. ‘It’s not possible to stop the sea with just my arms.’

A presidential candidate was called by his opponent to be a ‘descendant of slaves’ and to have ‘come from a family of cannibals’. It was the former comment that caused the real stir. If you are thinking how the ‘chaiwallah’ comment meant to degrade Narendra Modi ended up biting his opponent instead, you will be disappointed in Senegal. The candidate there was insulted by the ‘descendant of slave’ charge and hired a traditional West African storyteller to articulate his lineage proving that he came from a family of respected warriors and not slaves. Turns out, it isn’t politically incorrect to use the term  ‘descendant of slave’ as a derogatory accusation there!

There are other anecdotes from the oral history of slavery, people who managed to change their identities and forget their slave past, those who are still stuck, those who are fighting it, and those who take their station in life as granted.

But we Indians need not get too smug. “Illegal” caste-based discrimination and crimes are as much a part of our present as the “abolished” slavery is of Senegal’s.

Read the complete article on Aeon.

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