Jewish Journal

Was Slavery Really That Bad?

by Beit T'shuvah

March 27, 2013 | 6:16 pm

By Ben Spielberg


During a Conservative Political Action Conference last month, an attendee presented a controversial view of African-American slavery. It went like this:

K. Carl Smith: 10-20 years after Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery, he wrote a letter to his former slave masters and said, “I forgive you.”
Scott Terry: Forgiving him for shelter and food?
Audience: The sound of a large, collective gasp.

The parallels between African American slavery in the United States and Jewish slavery in Egypt have been discussed for centuries. There are two issues that have to be discussed: 1) the Jews had years to migrate away from their slave owners and develop their own sense of identity, whereas African Americans usually morphed from slavedom into serfdom. 2) What did slavery actually consist of? The latter will be addressed first.

In Beit T’Shuvah’s own Freedom Song, a Passover Seder is juxtaposed against an AA meeting, furthering the parallels of slavery and the bondage that we all face--be it to drugs, alcohol, behavior, and/or emotional insecurity. But there is a safety in slavery that is often forgotten about; being a slave is easy. This is why people don’t just stop doing drugs once a habit is formed, why people don’t just jump out of bed after years of self-loathing laziness, and why people don’t just get “over” their fear of heights, relationships, or spiders. Emancipation doesn’t immediately allow the same luxuries that slavery does; there are more decisions, and there is more room for buyer’s remorse.

This doesn’t necessarily make Scott Terry correct--the negative connotations regarding slavery are still just as valid, and obviously outweigh the above points. Douglass did not forgive his slave masters for giving him food, he forgave them for giving him just enough food to survive and work. He forgave them for treating him as subhuman. He forgave them for subjecting themselves to such a primal behavior.

Jews celebrate Passover because we had an experience of leaving slavery, and leaving Egypt behind. We were able to watch water spread high above our shoulders and grant us a path to wander and explore. African Americans had a different experience: they had nowhere to go, and the only jobs available were akin to being a slave. They had no Red Sea, no wondrous exploration. Only a couple small cities in Florida.

When I think about Passover, I do not think about my ancestors as much as I think about what I can do for society. How do I accidentally perpetuate ideas of ethnocentrism in negative ways? How can I not only help people’s emancipations from the bondage of society, but help them explore their own identity? What questions can I ask that will force people to think critically--as opposed to shock them like Terry--and change the world?

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