The Mind Of The Slave

One of the forgotten divisions between men and men is that separating those who enjoy the work they have to do in the world and those who suffer it only as a necessary evil.

The distinction, despite its neglect by sociologists, is probably very important—certainly far more important than the current divisions between producers and exploiters, dolichocephalic Nordic blonds and brachycephalic Mediterraneans, Darwinians and Christians, Republicans and Democrats, Protestants and Catholics, wets and drys. A man’s politics, theology and other vices engage his attention, after all, only in his moments of leisure, and the shape of his cranium has very little demonstrable influence upon what habitually goes on within it, but the nature of the work he does in the world conditions every thought and impulse of his life, and his general attitude toward it is almost indistinguishable from his general attitude toward the cosmos.

At the one extreme lies the unmitigated slave—the man who has to spend his whole life performing tasks that are incurably uninteresting, and that offer no soothing whatever to his vanity. At the other extreme is what Beethoven called the free artist—the man who makes a living, with no boss directly over him, doing things that he enjoys enormously, and that he would keep on doing gladly, even if all economic pressure upon him disappeared. To the second category belong all the happiest men in the world, and hence, perhaps, all the most useful men. For what is done with joy is always better done, whether it be fashioning a material object, thinking out a problem or kissing a pretty girl; and the man who can make the rest of humanity pay him for being happy is obviously a better man than the general, or, at all odds, a luckier one. Here luck and superiority are one and the same. The fact that Joseph Conrad could write better than I, was in a sense, a matter of pure chance. He was born with his talent; he did not earn it. Nevertheless, it was just as real as if he had got it by Christian endeavor, and his superiority to me was thus perfectly genuine.

The slave is always conscious of his slavery, and makes constant and often desperate efforts to mitigate it or to get rid of it altogether. Sometimes he seeks that mitigation in outside activities that promise to give him the sense of dignity and importance that his daily labor denies him; sometimes he tries to give a false appearance of dignity to his work itself. The last phenomenon must be familiar to every American; it is responsible for various absurd devices to pump up lowly trades by giving them new and high-sounding names. I point, for example, to those of the real-estate agent and the undertaker. Neither trade, it must be obvious, offers any stimulation to men of genuine superiority. One could not imagine a Beethoven, a Lincoln or even a Coolidge getting any joy out of squeezing apartment-house tenants or pickling Odd Fellows. Both jobs, indeed, fail to satisfy the more imaginative sort of men among those compelled to practise them. Hence these men try to dignify them with hocus-pocus. The real-estate agent, seeking to conceal his real purpose in life, lets it be known grandly that he is an important semi-public functionary, that he has consecrated himself to Service and is a man of Vision—and to prove it he immerses himself in a private office with a secretary to insult his customers, joins a Rotary Club, and begins to call himself a realtor, a word as idiotic as flu, pep or gent. The ambitious washer of the dead—until very lately a sort of pariah in all civilized societies, like the hangman, the surgeon and the dog-catcher—proceeds magnificently along the same route. At regular intervals I receive impressive literature from a trade-union of undertakers calling themselves the Selected Morticians. By this literature it appears that the members thereof are professional men of a rank and dignity comparable to judges or archbishops, and they are hot for the subtlest and most onerous kind of Service, and even eager to offer their advice to the national government. In brief, the realtor complex all over again. I do not laugh at these soaring embalmers; I merely point out that their nonsense proves how little the mere planting of martyred lodge brothers satisfies their interior urge to be important and distinguished—an urge that is in all of us.

But most of the trades pursued by slaves, of course, offer no such opportunities for self-deceptive flummery. The clerk working in the lime and cement warehouse of some remote town of the foreign missions belt cannot conceivably convince himself that his profession is noble; worse, he cannot convince anyone else. And so with millions of other men in this great Republic, both urban and rural—millions of poor fellows doomed their life long to dull, stupid and tedious crafts—the lower sort of clerks, workmen, wagon-drivers, farmers, farm-laborers, petty officials, grabbers of odd jobs. They must be downright idiots to get any satisfaction out of their work. Happiness, the feeling that they too are somebody, the sense of being genuinely alive, must be sought in some other direction. In the big cities, that need is easily met. Here there is a vast and complex machinery for taking the slave’s mind off his desolateness of spirit—moving pictures to transport him into a land of romance, where men (whom he always identifies with himself) are brave, rich and handsome, and women (whom he identifies with his wife—or perchance with her younger sister) are clean, well-dressed and beautiful; newspapers to delight and instruct him with their sports pages, their comic strips and their eloquent appeals to his liberality, public spirit and patriotism; public bands and the radio to play the latest jazz for him; circuses and parades; baseball, races, gambling, harlotry and games in arenas; a thousand devices to make him forget his woes. It is this colossal opportunity to escape from life that brings yokels swarming to the cities, not any mere lust for money. The yokel is actually far more comfortable on his native soil; the city crowds and exploits him, and nine times out of ten he remains desperately poor. But the city at least teaches him how to forget his poverty; it amuses him and thrills him while it is devouring him. I once knew an old colored woman, born in Southern Maryland, who lived miserably in one room of a shack in an alley in Baltimore. When asked why she did not go back to her village, where she would have at least had better food and more air, she replied very simply that there were never any parades in the country. It was a profound and intelligent saying.

But millions of the slaves, of course, must remain in the small towns or on the land; the cities can’t absorb all of them, nor even half of them. They thus confront the problem of making life bearable out of their own meagre resources. The devices that they adopt—political, religious and social—are familiar to all of us, and account fully, it seems to me, for some of the phenomena of American life that are most puzzling to foreign observers. The hoop-la Methodist revival with its psychopathological basis; the violent bitterness of rural politics; the prosperity of the Ku Klux Klan and all the other clownish fraternal orders; the persistent popularity of lynching, tarring and feathering, barbarities of a dozen other varieties—all these things are no more than manifestations of the poor hind’s pathetic effort to raise himself out of his wallow, to justify and dignify his existence, to escape from the sordid realities that daily confront him. To snort and froth at a revival makes him conspicuous, prominent, a man of mark; it is therefore easy to induce him to do it. To hold a petty county office is eminence; hence he struggles for it frantically. To belong to the Ku Klux gives him a mysterious and sinister dignity, and fills him with a sense of power and consequence; he falls for it as quickly as a city intellectual falls for the Légion d’honneur or an LL.D. To take a hand in a concrete tarring or lynching—this instantly makes him feel that he has played an heroic rôle in the world, that he has accomplished something large and memorable—above all, that he has had a gaudy good time. In brief, all these things make him forget, transiently or permanently, that he is a miserable worm, and of little more actual importance on earth than his own hogs.

Long ago, I suggested that a good way to diminish lynching in the South would be to establish brass bands in all the country towns. The bad music, I argued, would engage and enchant both the blackamoors and the poor white trash, and so discourage the former from crime and the latter from seeking a savage satisfaction in its punishment. I now improve and embellish that suggestion. That is to say, I propose that the band scheme be shelved, and that bull-fighting be established as a substitute. Why not, indeed? Cattle have to be killed, and the Southern poor white is admittedly a savage. Why not combine the necessary slaughter of horned quadrupeds with a show that will give that savage a thrill and take his mind from his lowly lot, and so turn him from seeking escape in politics, murder and voodoo theology? Bull-fights in the South would not only diminish lynchings; they would also undermine Prohibition. A happy peasantry would have no reason to divert itself with homicide, and neither would it have any reason to belabor the rest of us with the ethical and political manias of its Baptist dervishes. The Ku Klux, it seems to me, is a good influence in the South rather than a bad one, for it tends to regulate and formalize the normal sports of the people, and so restrains excess. The trouble with lynching before the Klan took charge of it was that men of the darker races were often hanged and burned purely arbitrarily, simply because the yokels of some Christian county could not stand boredom any longer. But now rules are laid down and a sort of jurisprudence gets into it. I have heard all kinds of wild charges against the Invisible Empire, but I have never heard anyone allege that its responsible officers have ever countenanced the execution of its laws upon anyone not obviously guilty. This is an improvement. Life is safer and happier in Georgia today that it was before the Rev. Dr. Simmons heard the voice. But it would be even safer and even happier if the pure Anglo-Saxons down there could work off their steam by going weekly to a plaza de toros, and there see official picadoresbanderilleros, and matadors, all of them good Democrats and baptized men, lynch and burn (or even merely geld) a reluctant and protesting male of Bos taurus.


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