I do not remember how I learned about slavery. I heard the word quite early, in the bible and in Greek mythology, but figured it for one of those terrible ancient things like dinosaurs or crucifixion. My awareness of modern slavery came later. No one explained it. It was one of those distasteful/irrelevant/not fit for children things that adults refused to engage me on. Still I was curious so I manage to piece together a rough awareness from circumspect mentions in the books about war and history and moral quandary that were available to a sub-ten year old. At the time I conceptualized it as having very bad parents who never let you grow up and could give you away if you displeased them.
By the time I was sixteen I understood it as a point of disagreement between white people, something akin to a border dispute or dumping tea in a harbor, only blacker. Eventually courageous white people freed the helpless blacks from the ferocious, but temporarily insane, other white people. I was confused as to how anyone could allow themselves to remain a slave. It was upsetting to hear about, but still something fundamentally apart from me. I had met three black people by that point in my life. They were nice and things seemed to be going well for them.
Twenty years later and I still have no idea what it meant to be slave, but I have some sense of what it is to be free. I know how hard it is to construct a sense of self and the suffocating fury that accompanies its denial. I know the shame of being deemed less, of being miscast as a person I revile. I know the ache of being depended upon and failing to meet that obligation. This all comes from a life filled with privilege, love, and boundless opportunity. I cannot imagine the horror of a life entirely defined by the will of those who consider me worthless. The weight of an everyday without personhood or hope. And what troubles me is not the atrocity my race committed on another, I wasn’t born, but how long it took me move past condescending sympathy and develop the smallest part of real empathy. To feel connected instead of feeling bad. I wonder at my response if a child asked me the first thing about slavery?