They’re on display in the “1863” half of the 1863/1963 exhibit in the African American History Gallery on the second floor of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. In a display case, next to the ads for a slave auction and text describing the ways in which humans were bought and sold as chattel in the American South, they sit: a petite-sized set of cast-iron leg shackles, the spare, stark description reading “shackles used for slave children.”
I’m in Washington, DC, today, after having been in Philadelphia for the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) over the last four days. It was a fantastic meeting, filled with great scholarship, conversations, and colleagues. There were lots of panels on slavery and emancipation in the antebellum US. Also, I’m currently reviewing a book on slaves’ self-emancipation during the Civil War. In the type of scholarly milieu I’ve been in lately, then, I’ve been deeply engaged with the history of slavery. But sometimes I wonder if I’m only seeing that history as an abstraction, another academic subject with its attendant scholarly literature, a set of arguments about processes somehow removed from the urgency of daily life.
And of course, it’s not. Slavery was–and IS–an awful scourge on humanity, an evil and cruel institution whereby one set of people defines another set of people as “chattel”–not human–and uses that as an excuse to treat them with horrific, numbing,and constant violence. That violence, present at the existential level, is a crimson thread running through the entire fabric of this country’s history (in this, of course, the US is unexceptional). And of those who lived their lives enmeshed in that matrix of enslavement, of being “socially dead” (to borrow Orlando Patterson’s phrase), we can never fully recover the anguish they must have felt–or, for that matter, the strength it took to even continue living in such a nightmare.
I came the closest I could to feeling that visceral sense of horror today, looking at those child-sized shackles and imagining them around the ankles of my children. But I jumped out of that mental image as quickly as I could, my emotional defense mechanisms hitting the “eject” button within seconds. I can’t even fathom what it must have been like to not be able to eject out of that, but to be a parent watching those shackles being used on children they knew they may never see again. I cannot. I can use adjectives and metaphors, I can read the searing descriptions of slavery in the vast trove of primary sources, I can imagine being in such a situation, but I cannot ever know what it was like. I don’t mean “know” as an intellectual act; I mean it in the more primal, aware-in-your-soul sense of the term.
As a historian, I am well aware of my limits. I can describe, but never completely recapture. I can narrate, but it’s me imposing that narrative structure upon the peoples of the past; my story may or may not have been their stories. The best I can do is to present a reflection of the past–and like all reflections in the mirror, it’s exceedingly difficult to discern the underlying emotions, thoughts, and psychological processes. But that difficulty cannot prevent me from trying. I fail as a scholar and a teacher if I cannot convey at least some of the depth of people’s lived experiences.
Where documents fail, objects often succeed. I’ve heard and read a lot of the latest scholarship on slavery over the last week. None of it came close to the impact that those children’s shackles had on my understanding of slavery. This is not because those scholars weren’t doing great work–they were, and I am richer for having read it. We need research and scholarship to lead us to a place where we can attempt an understanding.
My attempt came today, when laying eyes on those shackles bludgeoned my emotions, grabbing at the places in my soul where I am a father, a husband, a pacifist, a lover of humanity, and one who trembles before our capacity for violence. I am understanding–but I do not understand–what those shackles meant in the lived experience of those men, women, and children in the slave market. Buyers, sellers, masters, slaves–all were present at an occasion simultaneously horrific and mundane, cataclysmic and banal. Lives were cheap, trucked and bartered like produce and livestock, and at the end of it all, children–with or without their parents–shuffled out in those shackles, entering their dark night of the soul. As one slave later recalled, being a slave was like living one’s life never seeing the sun; it was “all night forever.”
We can never understand that. But that is precisely why we must make the attempt.