Lift the Veil, See the Light

Article excerpt

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WE WERE STUDYING the American Civil War in one of my middle school social studies classes when we were charged with the task of debating the pros and cons of slavery. I know, in retrospect it seems a bit odd to me as well. But, in a sense, what better way is there to learn about any historical subject than to debate it? And rather than debate the subject from the perspectives of late twentieth-century teens, we approached it as if we were abolitionists or southern plantation owners during Abraham Lincoln's presidency.

I was placed on the pro-slavery side of the argument. I remember spending many an hour in the local public library poring over Time Life books. (The late 1980s were still a pre-Internet age.) It was during this period that I developed an insatiable appetite for history and began to devour history books of all shapes and sizes, as fast as I could read them. I thought that I would be able to unlock the mystery of human civilization, to gain a complete understanding of the world around me, and to peer far into the future of humankind. As an almost inexorable result, this was also when I began to loosen the tethers and fetters of religion from my wrists.

I read about the trials and tribulations of both escaped and freed slaves. I read about the cruel world waiting to pounce mercilessly upon penniless, illiterate, and uneducated former slaves. About how former slaves were torn from the stability of family and community and the paternalism of the slave owner (including the legal protections afforded slaves). About how former slaves struggled to rebuild their lives in a world that didn't want them.

And then I had a eureka moment. Some--not many, but some--of the slaves didn't want to stop being slaves. A small number wanted to remain with their owners or return even after being freed.

I knew I had just won the debate. And indeed I did. I led our team to victory. The pro-slavery contingent defeated the abolitionists because, in a democracy, in the land of the free, who are we to tell people that they can't be slaves if they want to be? Who are we to tell someone that she has to be free? Who are we to tell someone that she has to be regarded as fully human? It doesn't matter that the alternative to slavery, which would mean walking away from everything one had ever known to recreate life anew without any resources, was regarded as healthier and more dignified. It was still the individual's choice to make.

It's ironic that I had to acquire that argument from a Time Life book, because I was living that argument. I was a slave who extolled the virtues of being a slave. I was a slave who insisted that I had chosen slavery of my own free will, of my own volition, as a conscious and educated choice. Because, you see, I was a Jehovah's Witness who had been brainwashed from birth to believe that God had created me subhuman--below man. I had been indoctrinated to accept this truth as part of God's divinely ordained scheme for mankind (not humankind), to serve the men in my family and community, and nothing more. I had been inculcated to wait patiently for my post-Armageddon blessings in the hereafter or suffer the dire consequences in the here and now, including demonic attack.

My mother had been raised in a largely secular home. Then, when she was a teenager, she fell for a bad boy and got pregnant. Her family moved away, but she stayed and married the bad boy (my father) and soon realized she was undone. He was abusive and cruel. She was trapped and alone, wallowing in self-loathing and misery. Then she found the Jehovah's Witnesses, or rather they found her, as her husband's family were Witnesses themselves. My mother had found her salvation, for the Jehovah's Witnesses hated her, as a woman, as much as she hated herself. But that faith also provided justification for remaining in an abusive marriage. It was okay to hate and punish herself-this was God's plan. …