Commentary: Let’s Take a Fair Look at Slavery By CARL SHAMES

Tuesday July 05, 2005

Underlying the dispute over the name change of Jefferson school are issues that divide and tear at the heart of the Berkeley community. While I think the School Board should have honored the vote in a demonstration of democracy, at the same time, the idea of a name change is merely symbolic and risks continued avoidance of the real issues. My suggestion is: Let’s get real. Literally. Let’s look at the real history, the real issues. How about Berkeley being the first school district in the country to design a slavery curriculum, not just as part of African American studies but as part of world history and current events? 

Enslavement in one form or another has permeated human history and been a major economic force right up to the present. While the outright chattel slavery of the Africans was among the most prolonged and vicious, many other forms of enslavement have come very close. The movie Schindler’s List documented the enslavement of Jews in German factories and labor camps. Previously, Jews had been enslaved by Egyptians. Much of this country was built on the slave labor of Africans and the near-slavery of other groups such as the Chinese and Irish. History overflows with examples of the wealth of one group being built upon the enslavement of another. Rather than compete over whose enslavement was the most important, we need to look honestly at the actual history and how it has affected us up to the present. 

It is impossible to understand all of this in a simplistic way. If we reject as racist anyone who benefits from this system, many of us today would have to change our lives drastically. An interesting school exercise would be to do a calculation. Let’s add up how much the items in our daily lives cost: food, clothes, electronic equipment and so on. Then let’s calculate how much these items would cost if they were all produced by people earning a living wage, with health care, vacations and pensions instead of by 15-year-old girls in Malaysia working eighty hours a week in sweatshops for pennies an hour with a boss who gets to rape them any time he wants. Or by enslaved children in Africa, or Latin Americans working in near-slavery conditions. Let’s see. None of us would be able to afford our way of life any more than Jefferson could have afforded his if his slaves were all paid and lived decently. Let’s really look at how much of our country was built by slave labor and how much the owners and all of us have relied on this. 

Let’s look at this honestly. Are the people who reject Jefferson willing to make the sacrifice they ask of him? Are any of us willing to confront these issues head-on? The Berkeley school board has a unique opportunity now to provide leadership on an issue deeply affecting our community and our whole nation. Let’s do it. 


Carl Shames is a Berkeley resident.