I have often read about those who initially profited from the slave trade, making the journey across what is now referred to as the Middle Passage with men and women chained below in the most deplorable conditions, like so much cargo. But, ultimately, I fail to understand those who were present when the “cargo” arrived and auctions held and terrorized Africans were clinically inspected and sold into plantation slavery.
I think about those men and women who stood by and bore witness with a detachment and acceptance that is, in retrospect, incomprehensible. As a tableau it is, no matter the distance created by time, still unimaginable.
I wonder what has to occur in the human heart for one to be immune to seeing a family fragmented, plowed asunder, and not be moved to protest? Are we, as a species, able to so completely rationalize the purchase of another human being and still insulate ourselves from this, the most despicable of acts, and simultaneously fashion elaborate justifications that amount to a baroque defense of the indefensible?
I write the above in response to a recent op ed piece, “The Long History of Child Snatching,” that recently appeared in the New York Times wherein Tera W. Hunter, professor of history at Princeton University, writes about the connection between America’s history of separating children from their families and the zero tolerance immigration policy of the current administration. Hunter references “Twelve Years a Slave,” a memoir by Solomon Northup, a free black man who was nefariously sold into slavery in 1841. Northrup describes a slave auction where “a woman named Eliza and her daughter, Emily, were sold to different buyers. Never have I seen such an exhibition of intense, unmeasured and unbounded grief. ‘Don’t leave me, Mama! Don’t leave me!’ Emily cried.” Helpless words that echoed as the heartbreaking understanding dawned on both mother and child that they would likely never see one another again. Northrup writes that Eliza, who also lost another daughter, never recovered. “In the cabin, in the cotton fields, always and everywhere, she was talking of them, as if they were actually present.” Her suffering defined the rest of her days.
Professor Hunt not only touches on what was reprehensible and all but inconceivable regarding the institution of slavery, but goes on to point out that beginning in the late 1800s, tens of thousands of Native American children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were disabused of their language and culture, their names changed, while efforts were made to transform them into the image of a white child. This policy was carried out with the same unquestioning conviction that it was necessary if the “savages” were to be salvaged.
Trump/Sessions take their place among those who inhabit some of the darkest and most depraved corners of our history. When I think about what is taking place on our southern border, the separation of children from their incarcerated parents, I find it impossible to understand how Congress has not spoken out with one voice and said this cannot stand. But they have not, with the exception, it seems, of Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who visited several detention facilities that housed children of immigrant parents and were described as, essentially, wire cages or “dog kennels.”
Ravina Shamdasani, United Nations spokeswoman for the high commissioner for human rights, stated, “Regarding the practice of separating children from their families, as a deterrent, amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and a serious violation of the rights of the child. America should immediately halt the practice and stop criminalizing what should be at most an administrative offense ...”
U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, responded, “Neither the U.N. or anyone else will dictate how the U.S. upholds its borders.” Haley did not address the policy.
The White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly, said the separations would be a “tough deterrent for migrants coming to the U.S.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions commented that the zero tolerance policy was a “legitimate” warning to people who might come to the U.S. with their children. Indeed.
Chris Honoré is a Daily Tidings columnist.