(trigger warning: infanticide, torture, institutionalized rape) (skip it)
History has its share of examples where, especially once an entire people are branded as enemy, mentally inferior, or any of history’s myriad examples of othering, they are enslaved. This explicit removal of freedom, when condoned by whole nations and cultures, invites startling dehumanization and depravity. Vette, Star Wars’s fictional videogame character, pleads that the player’s tortures and degredations have her, “rotting from the inside.” If Sicart is right, and those ugly actions help us to focus our moral thinking, then that’s sort of good.
But it’s not the same as having context for the actual evils that privileged, ostensibly “educated” classes inflict when slavery is openly institutionalized. One of the hardest accounts for me to read came from bell hooks’ explanations on how the Middle Passage was especially brutal for women. This from her classic on the black woman’s double-bind of racism and sexism: Ain’t I a Woman?.
Often the slavers brutalized children to watch the anguish of their mothers. In their personal account of life aboard a slave ship, the Weldons recounted an incident in which a child of nine months was flogged continuously for refusing to eat. When beating failed to force the child to eat, the captain ordered that the child be placed feet first into a pot of boiling water. After trying other tortuous methods with no success, the captain dropped the child and caused its death. Not deriving enough satisfaction from this sadistic act, he then commanded the mother to throw the body of the child overboard. The mother refused but was beaten until she submitted.
An important part of the slaver’s job was to effectively transform the African personality aboard the ships so that it would be marketable as a “docile” slave in the American colonies. The prideful, arrogant, and independent spirit of the African people had to be broken so that they would conform to the white colonizer’s notion of proper slave demeanor.
Once landed in the colonies, black women were staked to the ground and flailed, for burning the edges of their master’s morning waffles. It was more or less assumed that young white boys would lose their virginity to the “savagely sexual” black women. Slaveowners encouraged this practice, and other institutionalized rape, as mixed “mulatto” children often fetched a higher price, once taken from their mothers and sold. In general, “breeding” female slaves could fetch roughly a 1/6th higher price, when sold.
It’s not lightly that anyone should throw around examples in how far a group can go towards dehumanizing another, especially once a society throws open the floodgates of brutality by normalizing slavery. Nor is it something to brush off as inconsequential and worth forgetting, from an evil, but finished time. These patterns have a way of recurring, in ways we may not wholly expect.