Posts Tagged ‘Empire of Slavery’

“Nice-ing” to Death

February 1, 2011 Leave a comment

One thing from last Thursday’s class that really stuck with me and which I’ve been mulling over for the past few days was Katie Mead’s comment about our desire for “niceness” – that we constantly strive to look nice, be nice, to have nice things, etc. Despite our many different interpretations, I feel like at the heart of Love Cemetery was Galland’s desire for the cemetery to “look nice.” This word really seems to be used so frequently that it doesn’t really have any meaning anymore. We want so badly to be able to describe everything as “nice” that the word really doesn’t describe anything at all. The meaning of the word, that is to say, what exactly it means for something to be “nice,” is entirely subjective, and relies wholly on the merit and discretion of the person using it.

I think the issue of lacking a definition of the word “nice” comes into play again in Empire of Slavery’s seventh chapter, about how slaveowners were required to provide for their slaves and the various laws and regulation which, supposedly, were in place to attempt to make slavery seem like a slightly more humane practice. Empire describes how state legislature passed “laws requiring the masters of bondsmen ‘to provide for their [slaves’] necessary food and clothing,” suggesting that the slaveowners had at least a minimal duty to make sure that their slaves were provided for. However the text goes on to explain that “Definitions of ‘comfortable,’ ‘sufficient,’ and ‘wholesome’ were highly debatable, however, so material conditions did not depend primarily on enforcement of these legal protections” (134).  This seems strikingly similar to the way in which we discussed how the word “nice” really lacks a tangible definition and is entirely subjective based on the discretion of the user. Moreover, I’d even go so far as to say that the legislature deliberately left the definitions of these words vague and intangible so that they could truthfully say that they did something to protect the wellbeing of enslaved people without really having to do anything to change the ways in which slaveowners were operating.

We’ve mentioned a few times in class how history is the story of the victor. I think the living conditions of enslaved people is definitely one point at which the stories will completely diverge: the slaveowners’ stories would likely comply with the legislature which dictated that the living conditions be “nice,” while the stories of those enslaves are likely to reflect the actual, awful conditions in which they were forced to live. Empire of Slavery touches on the actual living conditions of those enslaved, but I think when we read Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl we’ll get a strikingly different picture of these “nice” living conditions.

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