A Tale of Two Ships

– L. Arthalia Cravin


This is black history month in America. Here in Amarillo, Texas the Performing Arts Center recently featured the opera about Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad entitled, “She Never Lost a Passenger: The Story of Harriet Tubman.” The local PBS affiliate, KACV-TV, showed the story of William Still, the ex-slave who also joined the Underground Railroad and kept a written account of the horrors of slavery and the slaves who fled to freedom. Recently KACV also showed “The Abolitionists,” about the men and women who fought against slavery almost from its inception. I have said all this to say that “we” can discuss slavery. So let’s talk about slavery’s origins. Let’s talk about slave ships. Let’s start at the very beginning of slavery in America.

I am probably the only person in American who was not impressed with all news coverage of the Carnival Cruise Lines, Triumph, that was stranded this week. I call this Ship #1. Aboard this ship were some 4000 passengers and crew who found themselves adrift at sea following a fire on board. The stories abound, “passengers tell of horrible conditions,” “cruise from hell,” “passengers safe after ship docks in Alabama.”

Ship #2 is a slave ship. The passengers on this ship did not board voluntarily but instead by force. These passengers were put on board in shackles and chains by slave traders for a trip that would take anywhere from two months to six months The passengers on Ship #2 were not assigned nice clean cabins, instead they were packed like sardines in the ship’s hold—the bottom cargo space. And it was in this dark, dank, septic tank hold where millions of slaves began their journey to the Americas. Compared to Ship #2 the passengers on Ship #1 got off easy. No one died on Ship #1. Millions died and were tossed overboard from Ship #2. The people on Ship #1 were free to go to the ship’s upper decks and escape the stench of raw sewage. The people on Ship #2 were not so free. The passengers on Ship #2 were forced to literally lie or sit in their own urine and feces, female menstrual blood, vomit, and only God know what else, not for a few days but for months. Read any account of the conditions aboard a slave ship. When the ship’s crew opened the doors to the holds to check on their cargo, and throw raw food and water down to their wretched cargo, the stench of human waste, death, disease, vomit, and blood, was so overwhelming that crew members retreated and vomited. Even they could not stand the smell of what the enslaved passengers had to endure in their dark septic tank below.

The passengers on Ship #1 had cell phones and Facebook to stay in contact with family and friends. The passengers on Ship #2 left family and friends behind, forced through the “door of no return” headed for a hell so horrible that no written accounts can adequately describe what they endured. The passengers on Ships #1 were repeatedly reassured that they would be compensated for their trouble—they would get reparations—refunds, new travel vouchers, hotels, motels, and money. The passengers on Ship #1 got to take baths and showers after their ordeal. Still some of the passengers on Ship #1 are busy filing lawsuits seeking even more reparations for their discomforts. The passengers on Ship #2 got nothing—not a dime. They embarked upon a trip that landed the strongest survivors in permanent chains and discomforts—not for a week, or a year, but for the rest of their lives. The passengers on Ship #2 received no reparations—and even the mention of reparations brings out the wrath of those who either participated in or continue to benefit from 250 years of free slave labor. No one filed lawsuits on behalf of passengers on Ship #2.

The passengers on Ship #1 are getting their “fifteen minutes of fame,” with ongoing interviews of their ordeals filling the media. All across America newspapers and other media are tracking down anyone aboard Ship #1 to get their personal accounts of their “cruise line discomforts.” Even a few Texas Panhandle people are getting their few moments of notoriety from being a passenger on Ship #1. No one remembers or cares about the passengers on Ship #2. No one cares who they were. These passengers got either death from the horrid conditions down in the hold, and tossed overboard, or they were stripped of clothing, and any connections to their only known sense of former identity, and sold on auction blocks. The passengers on Ship #2 disappeared into the institution of slavery—an institution that not only claimed the original passengers but fourteen generations of their off springs. The passengers on Ship #1 will record their “bad trip” on Facebook photos and in family picture books for their progeny. The passengers on Ship #2 were never memorialized but were forced to somehow forget their traumatic, life-altering, ordeal and repeated told to “just get over it.” Has anyone dared to tell the passengers on Ship #1 to “just get over it.”

The passengers who voluntarily boarded Ship #1 will, by and large, contribute nothing worthwhile to improving the human condition—except to extract more money from the cruise line. The passengers who were forced onto to Ship #2 set the stage for what America was to become—first the greatest slave holding nation on earth, then a nation torn asunder as a direct result of that slavery, and then the protracted and ongoing “civil rights” period of accommodation of the former slaves. This accommodation is still going on. Two ships– two disparate sets of passengers. One group of passengers free to go up-deck for air—the other passengers forced to stay in the hell-hole below. And, for what it’s worth, this is pretty much the state of current race relations in America. The type of passengers who boarded Ship #1 still occupy the top deck, socially and economically. The progeny of the passengers on Ship #2 are still languishing in the bottom hold.

Copyright 2013 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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Black History, Wednesday Wisdom