Classically Inclined

May 30, 2011

A further thought on slavery and the Pompeii exhibit

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 10:53 am
Tags: , , ,

I had a further thought about the Pompeii exhibition in Times Square over the weekend, specifically about the comparative absence of slavery.

My feelings about slavery are very different to those of the vast majority of the American audience who will see the current incarnation of this exhibition. I come from a British environment, where the inheritance of slavery is more or less invisible unless you specifically explore the Empire’s participation in the slave trade in the colonies, which was abolished by the Slave Trade Act of 1807 (followed by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which made the practice of owning slaves itself illegal). We never had slaves in England itself on the same scale as America, and as such we do not have a similar legacy. We have no equivalent of Jim Crow, of segregation, of the Montgomery bus boycotts, of Martin Luther King. I have had to internalise these things and remind myself that this is the cultural world my students inhabit, even if it is not mine.

When I teach, I am very aware that the word ‘slavery’ has a certain resonance, certain implications, that I have to break down at once. I have to tell my students explicitly and with no messing about that Roman slavery is a very different beast, it’s not race-based, it has more fluidity to it than ante-bellum American slavery, and that they have to rewire their brains to work with this material. It’s hard, it’s delicate, and it takes at least fifteen minutes of focused, careful explanation to lay the groundwork for tackling the subject for the rest of the semester.

I can’t ignore the subject when I’m teaching. The topic is too interwoven into every topic, every source, that I want to use with my students. But Discovery don’t have the luxury of a captive audience, or of taking fifteen minutes of carefully prepared discussion to make sure that their visitors are absolutely clear on the differences between Roman and American ante-bellum slavery. They can’t afford to take the risk that something will be misunderstood when the topic in hand is such a loaded one for American culture. As they don’t have the luxury of giving their popular audience the kind of in-depth instruction that making this distinction requires, they simply elide as much of slavery as they can.

I still don’t think that you can give an accurate picture of Roman society without talking about slavery and acknowledging its role. But given the audience that Discovery is targeting, and the practical challenges you face when you educate people about something this tricky and delicate, I can see why they decided to gloss over this potential minefield.

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