Slavery was a devastating practice in our nation’s history. It represents extreme abuse and discrimination against African American people. However, I believe the slaveholders of the period were acting in response to societal pressures. I believe that they were products of their time and not simply immoral monsters, as they’ve been made out to be. Slavery was an acceptable practice and slaves were believed to be subhuman creatures. Therefore, slaveholders obtained as much property as possible to impress their acquaintances with wealth and power. This attitude may seem offensive by today‘s standards, but if any of us were in that situation, faced with enduring societal pressures, could we say with certainty that we wouldn’t conform to slavery’s will? After all, humankind has a collective longing for acceptance, even if it means alienating an entire race to gain it.
Imagine children who grew up amidst slavery, witnessing the abuse and ridicule of slaves without a single consequence for the tormentor. They watched as their parents were praised for their property and power. I do not believe white children were born with prejudices against African Americans or the innate desire to coerce them into servitude. It was a learned desire, ingrained by years of observation. Children modeled themselves after their parents and continued in the familial occupation of running a slave plantation. And when they eventually had children, the cycle of savagery continued. It seems incomprehensible that people would follow such a ruthless tradition, but when owning slaves boosted both status and social approval, people conformed.
I try to envision myself as the child of a slaveholder. Would I have become one? I, like most, hope that I could never be capable of such cruelty. Since I was a young girl, my parents taught me important morals: Treat others the way you want to be treated, sharing is caring, and other ideals of equality and respect. So naturally the thought of owning slave seems outrageous. But had I lived back then, those morals would not have been part of my childhood learning. People would surely not have promoted equality among the races. Instead, I would have been told that slaves were inferior and did not deserve the same privileges. In the end, my ethical ideals would not have been as they are today. But believing in slavery would not necessarily have made me despicable. I would merely have fit into the societal norms of the period, just as I try to do today. Decades from now, why will some youth be ridiculing our generation? Our pollution of the earth through transportation? The deforestation of the rainforest? Promiscuity and drug use among teens?
The bottom line is that morality is subjective. Our opinions of right and wrong are continually shifting. The antebellum South accepted slavery and the abuse of African Americans, and in order to gain social status, people owned slaves. Are we any better? Perhaps they were simply clouded by the social expectations of the period. Perhaps we all are.