Friday, May 23, 2014

Lives in Bondage

Last week I posted about my interview with Tara Conklin. Her novel, The House Girl, reveals from the inside the daily experience of a slave, in prose that is simultaneously beautiful and shattering—at times shattering precisely because of its beauty.

In the United States, the tendency to sweep the topic of slavery under the rug arises in part from embarrassment. We are the democracy built to a significant degree on bondage, the land of the free—unless you happen to be born black or brown or female, in which case God help you. Thomas Jefferson, the articulator par excellence of democratic principles, had six children with the enslaved half-sister of his wife, Sally Hemings, who achieved her freedom only with his death. The hypocrisy is inescapable.



Slaves Steadying the Khan's Wagon
Screen shot from Nomad: The Warrior (2005)

But slavery was not an institution unique to the antebellum South. The domestic servants in my Legends of the Five Directions series are all slaves. Grusha—a major secondary character and future heroine—is a slave. The nomadic Tatar horde that forms the setting for The Winged Horse owns slaves. Tatar khans of the period supported themselves largely through slave raids, scooping up thousands of young Slavs each year for sale in Istanbul. Hürrem, better known as Roxelana, who managed harem politics with such skill that she eventually persuaded the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent to marry her, was a Ukrainian noblewoman captured in one such Tatar raid.

But is slavery the same everywhere? Scholars have traditionally regarded the version that prevailed in the U.S. South as unusually harsh, not least because its racist underpinnings made it impossible to escape. As the recent film Twelve Years a Slave highlights, even after it became illegal to import slaves from abroad, free blacks could be captured and enslaved, purely on the basis of their skin color. The social distance between slave and free was much less in Russia, where slaves resembled their owners in appearance and in culture. One might not confuse a slave with a noble, but one could not easily distinguish between slave and peasant or slave and artisan. Nor were the poor as free as they might have liked: they bore heavy obligations in taxes and tolls, and of necessity their lives focused on subsistence. Indeed, slavery functioned in Russia as a kind of social welfare system. Grusha ends up in the Kolychev household because her parents cannot afford to feed all their children, so they sell the girls and keep the boys, whom they consider more useful on the farm.

Even so, the life of a slave can’t have been pleasant. The things that Tara Conklin’s slave character Josephine dreams of being able to do—eat when she’s hungry, love whom she chooses, hang a painting of hers on the wall of a room that belongs to her—would also be on the lists of Grusha and her fellow servants. Indeed, Grusha has a list of her own: “Why should she not dress in satins and velvets? Ride in palanquins? Eat delicious food whenever she felt hungry?” (The Golden Lynx, 163–64). The only answer is because she was not born to the right family. Poverty, not skin color, keeps her in her place.



Nobleman's Servant (Slave)
From the Mayerburg Album of 1661

Of course, Nasan, the heroine of The Golden Lynx, doesn’t control her life either, despite being a khan’s daughter. Noblemen could no more choose their professions than peasants; Daniil’s brother, Boris, would have liked to paint icons, but society demanded he go to war. Russian nobles referred to themselves as slaves of the ruler, a custom that horrified the rare Western visitor. And the word now commonly translated as “sovereign” in fact means “master,” in the sense of slave owner. The element of hypocrisy was missing: duty far outweighed freedom as the primary value of Russian traditional society. Yet even in a world where according to popular lore, “he who wears the keys is a slave,” it must have been much better to be the master or mistress, warm and well fed—if not exactly comfortable (comfort is largely a modern, “bourgeois” notion; our ancestors cared more about prestige and honor)—and able to call the shots in one’s household. In that sense, lives in bondage look much the same wherever and whenever we find them.

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