Stanford Today Edition: November/December, 1996 Section: Features: Learning Curve WWW: Learning Curve


Learning Curve

Slavery Ancient and Modern: Classics 121

Danielle Kayembe, freshman student

I was born in Africa and raised in the United States. My father wanted to raise me as a traditional African girl. My stepmother, a Texan, wanted to raise me as a good American girl.

Being a black "African American" was the part of my identity that was least emphasized when I was growing up. Most of our closest friends were just like us: first-generation immigrants from various parts of Africa.

In our circle, there is a different outlook on black Americans. Immigrants often feel that black Americans have many advantages: They were born in the States, they have citizenship, they don't have to go back to school or take education equivalency tests, they have countless opportunities for housing and education.

Growing up, when we were still poor, I was one of the few black children my age. By the time I was in junior high, our family was considered middle class. Still, I was often the only black student in my grade and one of a handful in the private schools I attended.

Slavery was never really an issue for me. To me, Africa is where I am from, it's my home, it's my direct ancestry. But it is not the place where slavery began, as many Americans think. To me, slavery is not defined by race because it happened in many countries. Therefore, Africa can't be equated with the "home" or "root" of slavery.

When I heard about the "Slavery Ancient and Modern" class, I was interested in studying slavery as a historical, as well as a qualitative and quantitative fact. Studying it as a historical fact to me meant removing it from the American cycle of guilt and entitlement. Slavery as a fact signified the economic and international impacts of the practice.

After the first lecture, I was excited about the class and impressed with the professor's approach to teaching. His attitude toward the subject was enthusiastic and intellectual. His enthusiasm for the subject and for scrutinizing facts gave the course credibility.

Slavery has been so widespread that it is almost impossible to find a separation between progress and some kind of slavery in most societies. Over the centuries, enslavement has been justified for many different reasons - religion, ethnicity, heritage and class. But all of these justifications point to the real motive behind every form of enslavement: economic advantage. Slavery is usually a deliberate attempt by a wealthy group of people to get access to a cheap labor supply.

Slavery is significant for American history because it highlights the beginning of the racial and economic tensions our society still struggles with today.

Maybe because I am not completely American and not completely black American, there are important issues I can't discern. But I don't really think that is the case. To live in a society, but not really belong to it, is the ultimate contradiction. But it is also the most lucid form of reality.

Coming to this country as a person of African heritage, I am endowed with all kinds of characteristics, history and traits that no more belong to me than they belong to any immigrant of any other ethnicity from any other country. Race and ethnicity shouldn't matter, but since they do, I have to co-exist. I have to be black in some ways, be African in some ways and be American in some ways - but not in all ways.

This course is helping me to begin to resolve some of these complex dilemmas.

Ian Morris, classics professor

For some time I've been wanting to teach a course that would draw in students who thought something as distant as ancient Greek history - my specialty - couldn't be very interesting or significant. The idea of a comparative course on the history of slavery really appealed to me, particularly since Stanford has two world-class scholars of American slavery - Carl Degler and George Fredrickson - and a strong tradition of studying modern slavery.

In the 19th century, comparisons between ancient Greek or Roman slavery and modern American slavery dominated historians' writings. Abolitionists tried to show slavery as evil and corrupting, and pro-slavery writers portrayed it as necessary for civilizations to achieve greatness.

The debates may seem simplistic 150 years later, given that five generations of scholars have provided us with a lot of detailed evidence that wasn't available in the 1840s. But this abundance of research sometimes has tended to bury the fundamental issues. As a result, I decided that in "Slavery Ancient and Modern" we would return to some of the questions previous scholars had asked.

In our class we looked at four very different societies - ancient Athens, ancient Rome, modern West Africa, and the American South - from two points of view. As social scientists, we looked at what made slavery possible, and as humanists we tried to understand the experience of slavery. We asked why slave owners institutionalized slavery as a way of life, how masters justified oppression, how slaves came to terms with it, what made slaves revolt (or, more often, not revolt) and why slavery ultimately collapsed.

We found some striking similarities in the four societies. In each, we saw the rise of a powerful market offering vast profits to those who could control the labor of others, but which operated in a situation where the wealthy could not compel the poor to work for them. In each society, a feeling took shape that certain groups, defined by race, religion or military weakness, could be forced to work as slaves. The slaves responded in very different ways: some internalized their masters' ideas, but others found ways to resist.

The importance of a comparative approach to slavery is that it invites comparisons with contemporary society. Today we live in a period of exploding new markets, labor problems in industrialized countries and massive international imbalances of power. Most Western nations have a substantial population of foreign migrant workers who are denied significant rights, yet none of these groups appears to be in a position like the slaves of Rome or the Old South.

We have to ask "Why?" Is the 19th-century liberal conception of individual human rights so strong that nothing can override it? Or would such values collapse overnight if economic forces became powerful enough? It is hard to imagine even the most fanatical American politician wanting to make slavery legal, but only 60 years ago one of the most liberal regimes in Europe moved in the space of a decade to institutionalize the mass enslavement, forced labor and genocide of Jews, Slavs and other "inferior" races.

A comparative approach to slavery has to raise these difficult questions. Given that most documented societies have practiced some form of slavery, is there such a darkness in our hearts that slavery is a universal impulse? Or have we finally rooted out and destroyed this evil? ST