Saturday, October 14, 2006

Let the Past Remind Us Of What We Are Not Now

Yesterday was Friday the 13th, which makes lots of people nervous. They don't know why, but if you ask they will speculate. There were 13 people around the table at the Last Supper, some will tell you. Numerologically speaking, 1 + 3 = 4, a feminine number, weak, not lucky, others will say. I don't know about yours, but my eyes glaze over when numbers and luck turn up in the same premise, which is why in casinos I'm a squawking mess - we'll talk about that someday, when you're older, no matter how old you are now. Are you near death? Then we're close. A strong contender for the source of paraskavedekatriaphobia or fear of Friday the thirteenth is Friday, 13 October, 1307, the day Philip the Fair had Jacques de Molay and the Knights Templar in France arrested. Subsequently, the knights were tortured and burned at the stake, which to the modern American mind is so far out of the range of possibilities as to be laughable. Philip did what? And what happened? And nobody jumped out shouting, "Just kidding!" at the last moment and passed out hotdogs and marshmallows?

The reason we can afford to be horrified and not terrified is that our Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. We can equivocate until the cows come home about the words punishment, cruel, unusual and, um, cows, but the fact remains that in our time, it is hugely unlikely that American felons will be burned at the stake in the public square. You can say what you like about whatever threat we face from abroad, our founding fathers knew our worst enemy will always be ourselves.

Amendment XIII
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

A Section 1. implies a Section 2., but either I'm too harried to find it or someone flunked Outlines 101. Yesterday, Siobhan weighed in on the Constitution in general.

Siobhan: You know, Ben Franklin was only doing this to get laid.
Tata: I respect that. In fact, that may be my plan, too.
Siobhan: I couldn't make out what the wording of Amendment XI meant but I am reminded that opium played a big part in the Constitutional process.
Tata: Oooh! If we legalize that, virtually everyone can be a Constitutional scholar!

Until a few years ago, I read history, which is essentially the struggle of human beings against their most barbaric impulses, and consoled myself with the thought that at least no one was burned during the Salem Witch Trials. Unfortunately, history is also often written by people who have the most to gain by controlling posterity's image of past events, so what most Americans know about things like eighteenth and nineteenth century slave rebellions is exactly zip. So in reality that may take hundreds of years to establish, sometimes there is no consolation to be had.
New York Burning is a well-told tale of a once-notorious episode that took place in Manhattan in 1741. Though, as Jill Lepore writes, New York's "slave past has long been buried," for most of the 18th century one in five inhabitants of Manhattan were enslaved, making it second only to Charleston, South Carolina, "in a wretched calculus of urban unfreedom." Over the course of a few weeks in 1741, ten fires burned across Manhattan, sparking hysteria and numerous conspiracy rumors. Initially, rival politicians blamed each other for the blazes, but they soon found a common enemy. Based solely on the testimony of one white woman, some 200 slaves were accused of conspiring to burn down the city, murder the resident whites, and take over the local government. Under duress, 80 slaves confessed to the crimes and were forced to implicate others. When the trial was over, 13 black men were burned at the stake, 17 more were hanged (along with four whites accused of working with them), and 70 others were shipped off to the Caribbean where slavery conditions were even worse.

By necessity, Jill Lepore bases much of her research on a journal written in 1744 by New York Supreme Court Justice Daniel Horsmanden, which she describes as "one of the most startling and vexing documents in early American history" and "a diary, a mystery, a history, and maybe one of English literature's first detective stories." Adding cultural and political context to the available evidence, Lepore questions whether there was a conspiracy at all, or if it was blind fear run amok that led to the guilty verdicts for so many slaves. As she points out, fear of slave revolt was a real and consistent theme throughout the early days of the colonies. Crisply written and meticulously researched (the book includes several detailed appendices), New York Burning is a gripping narrative of events that led to what one colonist referred to as the "bonfires of the Negroes." -Shawn Carkonen

Book review aside, we have a terrifying truth to face: inside us all exist the fear and the germ that grew into this horror. We say it doesn't and if it does, we will not cultivate its growth, but there is no other excuse for our submission to the Patriot Act, to wiretapping and warrantless searches. We are seeing now the growth of this same horror in slow motion, perhaps. The elements are the same: fear, brown-skinned people, a supposed threat to our way of life. If you slow down and think, you can see where the monster is growing and what it will destroy.

I don't have to tell you. You already know.

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