The Great Trap for All Americans

A scene from the first production of Robert Lowell’s Benito Cereno, part of his trilogy, The Old Glory, directed by Jonathan Miller at the American Place Theater in 1964 and based on Herman Melville’s novella. Captain Amasa Delano (Lester Rawlins, second from left), who has boarded the slave ship San Dominick off the coast of Trinidad, is listening to its captain, Don Benito Cereno (Frank Langella), and is still unaware that the slaves, under the command of Cereno’s servant, Babu (Roscoe Lee Browne, right), have taken over the ship.
Friedman-Abeles/New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
A scene from the first production of Robert Lowell’s Benito Cereno, part of his trilogy, The Old Glory, directed by Jonathan Miller at the American Place Theater in 1964 and based on Herman Melville’s novella. Captain Amasa Delano (Lester Rawlins, second from left), who has boarded the slave ship San Dominick off the coast of Trinidad, is listening to its captain, Don Benito Cereno (Frank Langella), and is still unaware that the slaves, under the command of Cereno’s servant, Babu (Roscoe Lee Browne, right), have taken over the ship.

One hundred and fifty years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, the nation’s first black president paid tribute to “a century and a half of freedom—not simply for former slaves, but for all of us.” It sounds innocuous enough till you start listening to the very different kinds of political rhetoric around us. All of us are not free, insists the Black Lives Matter movement, when “the afterlife of slavery” endures in police brutality and mass incarceration. All of us are not free, says the Occupy movement, when student loans impose “debt slavery” on the middle and working classes. All of us are not free, protests the Tea Party, when “slavery” lurks within big government. Social Security? “A form of modern, twenty-first-century slavery,” says Florida congressman Allen West. The national debt? “It’s going to be like slavery when that note is due,” says Sarah Palin. Obamacare? “Worse than slavery,” says Ben Carson. Black, white, left, right—all of us, it seems, can be enslaved now.

Americans learn about slavery as an “original sin” that tempted the better angels of our nation’s egalitarian nature. But “the thing about American slavery,” writes Greg Grandin in his 2014 book The Empire of Necessity, about an uprising on a slave ship off the coast of Chile and the successful effort to end it, is that “it never was just about slavery.” It was about an idea of freedom that depended on owning and protecting personal property. As more and more settlers arrived in the English colonies, the property they owned increasingly took the human form of African slaves. Edmund Morgan captured the paradox in the title of his classic American Slavery, American Freedom: “Freedom for some required the enslavement of others.” When the…


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