When my fiancé and I arrived in Aruba, my only knowledge of the island was a missing white girl from a few years back. Well, that and the resorts for which I had come. The first few days we spent there we did the typical bourgeois things such as sit on the beach and swim and cool off in the cafes. And, if only to highlight from which subsection of the middle class I hailed, I even did some status signaling by reading while on the beach—Dostoevsky, anyone? I’m not going to lie, the cool tranquil waters and dry heat wave were idyllic.
So when we took a tour to the west side of the island, we got to see more rugged terrain. Here, large waves pounded the steep rocky edges and one got the sense of nature’s power, of the sea devouring the island. The tour took us past large windmills, steep hills, and finally arrived at some beautiful caves. In these cool, dark caverns, we were told about how the original Natives of the island once huddled in the caves as slavers hunted them down. That moment, in the dark caves, filled me with a numb kind of melancholy. After all, it was a kind of surprise to hear this story, to “discover" this truth.
History is forever a nightmare from which we’re trying to awaken and all, and this time it was crawling, grabbing me from underground caves. Oh, what a first world problem. But, as is true of my middle class roots, though I thought on those last moments of people I’ve never known, I didn’t allow it to affect the rest of my vacation in an almost superstitious way.
It takes, I suppose, a special kind of ignorance to “find” or “discover” slavery, and even to pretend to think about it in a visceral “real” way. Or perhaps—and I understand this is something that merely reinforces that which is morally convenient for me—the vestiges of slavery are something we’ve successfully white washed in our country’s history. Therefore, coming face to face with a real moment can only cause discomfort and cogitation.
But, again, even the above sentence speaks of a special kind of ignorance that denies the existence of modern day slavery—something I am aware of, think about, know about, but somehow never truly sense nor act upon.
It was only when watching the brilliant documentary, 13th, that the fragments of history were tied together in a proper arc. The film made apparent the underlying forces which created the current status quo. These forces were no longer allowed to hide behind the facade of “now”—that zeitgeist’s pull that always answers the toughest questions with a meek “what about me?”. And what the film does especially well is to make that odd feeling—that discomfort, that nightmare of history, that moment in the caves about which I talked—more tangible, visceral, and understandable. At any rate, it’s always good to know that one is not alone in certain thoughts, that the zeitgeist—be it media or social decorum—really does try to neuter such ideas.
So when modern day slavery, backed by mass incarceration is made obvious, it usually only highlights my impotence in the face of such powers, though I do try to do something. So here’s some of that: watch this documentary, if only as a starting point for more education and steps to action. Whether that’s enough, remains to be seen. Those natives hiding in the caves, knowing an unspeakable evil was being visited upon them, they’re still with us. That we cannot change the past is something of a platitude, but a powerful one as it also serves as a smoke screen about understanding today. For we can work on the here and now—to pick a single topic—on slavery in our prisons.
So, with that forward march in mind, here are some groups which are working to improve that (with much credit given to Chris Hedges for talking about Slave Revolts in our Prisons):
Nelson Lowhim is a veteran and writer. He is the author of many novels, short stories and essays to include CityMuse, The Struggle, 1000001 American Nights and the Labyrinth of Souls. You can find more about him and his work at nelsonlowhim.blogspot.com. Find him on Twitter @nlowhim