“It’s a boy!” The woman said happily on the recording, unaware of how many times her voice would ring through the speakers of personal computers, how many times the link to the video where she talks about legs, hearts, what researchers want brains for, would be shared on social media. Probably she would have wished to be famous for something else, but this is what we know her voice for.
Last Friday a friend and I went to the Heinz Pittsburgh History Museum. The have a new exhibit up called From Slavery to Freedom, detailing the horrors of the slave trade and human ownership.
To be sold, the sign read. Choice cargo of about 250 fine healthy negroes, just arrived from Windward & Rice Coast.
Museum goers walked by, stopping, rolling their eyes, gasping, saying aloud, how could this have been okay?
Because it seems ridiculous today, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it seem crazy to own another human, to think that because a person’s skin is different they must not have a soul? How could they have inspected another person’s teeth, like looking at a horse, and decide they would be good for labor? How could we have put someone on a stand while bidders stood around, prodding the legs, observing the build, and paying a price to control every day they would ever live?
It’s a man’s right was the argument of the slave owner at the time. It was a popular view. It’s a man’s right to own a slave to work on his field, to help him provide for his family, to work the ground the Good Lord gave him. According to popular the law, it was every bit in his right to own another human because one was born chocolate and the other born ivory.
The black man is directionless without us, they said. We take care of him like a lost sheep. It’s our duty to feed him, to care for him, to order him around, because we are the superior race.
It’s a woman’s right, we say today. We say it in speeches while talking about equality. We say, a woman should decide what she does with her body. We say, the baby deserves to die because he was born to the wrong person, at the wrong time. We say, it’s good what we’re doing because we’re preventing overpopulation, homeless children. As this happens, we walk past a slave exhibit, pat ourselves on the back and say look how far we’ve come. We no longer decide the fate of another man because our voices are larger.
“There’s the legs,” said the woman in the video, “Will those work for you?”
Fine, healthy negroes. Strong legs. Able to work.
Fine, healthy fetuses. Small legs. Perfect for research.
Slave owners were allowed, by law, to do whatever they chose with their slaves. Slaves were at the mercy of their masters. Some masters were patient, kind, even fair by the day’s standards. Others were cruel: beating, raping, starving their slaves. The slaves were their property, though. They could do what they wanted to.
A woman’s body is her property, we say. By law, she’s allowed to do what she wants with it. This is feminism. This is liberty. We must choose motherhood, not let it choose us.
To keep his business going, to keep buyers interested and the funds coming in, the slave trader knew that the buyer must never see his purchase as one thing: an equal. They sold men alongside rice, muslins, and needles. Convince the white man that this slave is just that. Tell the buyer it’s okay to separate the slave from his family, because he couldn’t possibly love or care about them, not really. He doesn’t think the way we do. He’s not a human: he’s cargo.
Planned Parenthood relies on the same techniques when women walk, raw skinned and bleary eyed, through their doors. Just cells, they say. Not a human yet. Not even close.
There’s the pancreas. Here’s a liver, fully intact.
Here are the eyes—can you use those?
What do you use the brains for?
We’ll call them specimen—never say what they really are.
Today, slavery is a horror. We can’t understand how it was ever okay. But we can, can’t we? We can understand how our ancestors tricked themselves, how they told themselves it’s okay, it’s good, it’s exercising your right as a man.
It’s okay, it’s good: you’re exercising your right as a woman.
I hope one day we’ll walk the halls of a museum featuring the end of abortion. I hope our children and grandchildren walk through the exhibit, gasping, crying, asking, how could this have ever happened? How could this have ever been okay?
We’re all equal now, we say. Under the flag that stands for justice for all, presidents once bought and sold slaves: innocent men and women taken without warning from their homes and countries. Today, we buy and sell the parts of tiny, innocent bodies that were never given a chance.
Have we really come so far?