On reading Sacred Hunger (by Barry Unsworth) (Part 1)

This is a very compelling, very beautifully written novel. The story was about the European slave trade to the Americas in the 1700’s, but for me, it very quickly took me on a personal journey into moral ambiguity. How could slavery occupy any gray area? I started out the book thinking, “Everyone blames America, but really it was the Europeans who started this and profited as much from it.” I was not removing blame from the Americans who profited but somehow (sadly), it made me feel a little less guilty as an American, but only for a little while. The book does an excellent job of situating the slavery into a seemingly rational way of life that helps us understand how evil is sustained. We are introduced to amiable characters who are part of the slave trade who do not seem to be monsters; there are many ways in which we relate to them, understand them. They are people trying to make a living, who love their families, who want them to prosper. This is just one of many ways they seek to grow their wealth. It seems reasonable to them. For them it is just part of the world of trade, and they believe it is trade from Africa to Jamaica back to England that propels progress (and innovation?) and improves the lives of everyone. It is easy to get sucked into the drama of their day-to-day lives and forget the horror of how they make their living. Even the most enlightened characters, at least initially, have no moral outrage against slavery. And it is not just Africans whose freedom is compromised, nor is it only the English who enslave Africans. A number of the crew were pressed into service and it was African “middle men” who captured men and women and sell them to the ship’s captain, taking a cut along the way and making things better for themselves and their families.

So, I had this rude awakening that I can’t feel better about myself because I can just blame the English in the 18th century for these crimes against humanity. It is everyone that lets this happen. Then and now, injustice is part of a system that is difficult to disentangle. Or at least that is what the people who are profiting from it want you to believe. That it is too complicated and that there will be unintended consequences…that someone else will get hurt along the way…that you just don’t understand. “It’s not that easy,” is what my father used to say when I would complain about sexism or racism or the Vietnam War. But now I believe that is all subterfuge. There has to be a way to cut through what is wrong to get through what is right.

Slavery is still happening around the world, just not as blatantly, not openly supported by legitimate governments, but undoubtedly happening with many governments turning a blind eye. And thinking about slavery made me think of every other morally reprehensible act that enables us to live in relative comfort and luxury while it causes pain to or degrades other human beings. Start anywhere…sweat shops…mining…the toxicity from manufacturing that is in our soil and water and bodies..…the tragedy of drug addiction while so much money lines the pockets of criminals and politicians and is laundered through ‘legitimate’ businesses. Think of the arms trade all around the world and think of the guns that are bought and sold and stockpiled in the United States and politicians too gutless or evil to take a stand against laws giving people the right to own assault weapons. And how pharmaceutical companies use the bodies of people in developing countries to test new drugs. Undoubtedly some benefit could accrue to these people, but not in proportion to the benefit realized from drug companies. We do not push ourselves hard enough to see the interconnectedness of everything or to figure out how to leave the faintest mark on the world. It is all complicated, and sometimes there seems to only be a choice between several evils, but the consideration of the effects of what we do on others and the intention to create as few negative consequences as possible will create the possibility of it while looking the other way will not.

The genius of this book, for me, was that the story held up a mirror to my own ability to ignore evil in everyday life and to acknowledge that the bad stuff it not “out there” but everywhere where we do not acknowledge it and try to stop it.

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