Last week, something Trumpian must have sparked a race between major publications to put out the most fucked up writings on the topic of slavery.
On Tuesday, The New York Times compared Saartje Baartman–an enslaved Black woman who, in addition to the many other horrors she suffered both before and after her death, was forced to perform in freak shows due to her curvaceousness–to Kim Kardashian. Not to be outdone, The Atlantic’s June cover story, “My Family’s Slave”, written by the late Pulitzer Prize winner Alex Tizon, ignited an even bigger controversy with the tale of an abused Filipino maid, Eudocia “Lola” Tomas Pulida, who spent 56 years taking care of Tizon and his family without pay.
There are many thoughtful critiques of Tizon’s essay that deconstruct the way it works to exonerate the author and obscure his own complicity while further dehumanizing the supposed subject of his piece, and I won’t repeat them. Having learned to tell an oppressor’s redemption story when I see one, I never even finished the article.
I was, however, involved in a few conversations about it with others. Over and over again, I found myself hearing the same disturbing response to those who indicted Tizon: Americans don’t know enough about Filipino culture to be so judgmental about the common labor practice in the island country that he described.
On Thursday, The Huffington Post hosted a roundtable discussion about the piece between three Filipina-American journalists where this response was a significant theme. Carla Herreria, a HuffPost Trends reporter based in Hawaii, argued that she was “not sure if it’s up to non-national Filipinos to decide for a country that has larger problems than we could know […] I think it’s a conversation that Filipino nationals have to have. They’re the ones who understand the complexities of their own country… they’re the ones who are hiring or being hired to escape poverty.”
Because who in America could ever know what it’s like to experience slavery?
There is no problem larger than what Black people who have gone through the four centuries of slavery here–or the century of its afterlives1 and current evolutions–could know. Chattel slavery, which was crucial to creating the global capitalist system under which we now live, directly leads to the conditions that force people like Lola to trade work for food and shelter.
The ongoing consumption of Black labor and the systematic way Black life is made not to matter is an international thread that has held civil societies together since the first ship left Africa’s shores with our ancestors in chains.
Black people have a place in every modern story, because every story since the establishment of the Atlantic Slave Trade is made legible through the anti-Black systems that grew from it. As editor and columnist Ericka Schiche argues, “The fact that Tizon and The Atlantic both approved of the usage of the word ‘slave’ in this context, and used it to sell the story and magazines to an American audience in a country founded on chattel slavery – no one should be shocked or dismissive of the fact that many people (especially Black folks) […] would be pushing back against this.”
It’s likely, however, that when people like Herreria argue that we in America don’t know the context of slave practices of different cultures, they do not even have Black people in mind.
It’s rare for a non-Black person to see Black people as part of their communities enough to be included in any “we.” And even as non-Black people of color critique racial movements for the hyper-visibility of Black struggles (which is baselessly assumed to take away from the struggles of everyone else), they rarely ever acknowledge how this visibility comes alongside a different type of erasure in all the ways that matter.
Lest we forget, The New York Times’ Baartman catastrophe and Atlantic piece happened simultaneously. Black pain and death is ever-present, but it is never relevant to the conversation at hand when it counts.
I am Black, and I don’t know many things. But I do know that Black people have an intimate knowledge of what liberation could look like, because we also know best the daily struggle with the vestiges of bondage.
I know that any struggle for liberation that excludes Black voices is not a comprehensive struggle against oppression. And I know that I don’t need to know anything more than this Black life to have something to offer in discussions of freedom.
1. [Described by scholar Saidiya Hartman as “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment”]↩