'Slave, Thou Hast Slain Me'

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I finished King Lear on the plane to San Francisco. Truthfully, I need to read it again. I forgot how much the predestined aspect of Shakespeare's plays annoyed me (everyone dies, everyone marries.) The writing was quite stunning, and given my present studies, I was drawn to the role of status, masking and the bound society. I'm thinking of the weapons of the weak, and how Kent and Edgar find power in lowering their standing. Or how The Fool is able to speak truths because of his humor and lowly station. 


I see this a lot in my research for the current project. There's always been this notion among a certain group of white people that blacks were actually "freer" than whites. Take the longing of some of the beats, for instance. Like most black people, I've had nothing but disdain for such negrophilia. But my current work has really forced me, not so much to discard my disdain, but to move past it and ask, "Why would someone feel like that?" "How could it be that I could come to feel like that?" 

There's a kind of rejection of evil in that perspective, or rather the sense that "evil" has little use in the search for "Why?" What you come to see is that power, whatever its advantages, is also binding, that Biggie's "Mo money, mo problems" is not just whining, that tripe like "heavy is the head that weighs the crown" is true in a way. 

Slave rebellions were really rare in the South, but the primary documents of slaveholding families are filled with fear of slave violence. One of my favorite episodes involves a slave-woman who, in the words of her master, is "corrected" (read: whipped) for some indiscretion. Members of the master's family, one by one, start to fall sick. He strongly suspects that the woman is poisoning the family. But he can't prove it, and moreover, the enslaved woman is good at her work, and thus valuable to him. This drama goes on for over a year, until he finally sells her. One way of seeing this story is to dwell on the master's power--he ultimately sells her. But looking through the master's eyes you see a  man so dependent on slave-labor that he would tolerate--for over a year--the slow poisoning of himself and his family. 

He was bound.

I think of Lear setting it all off:

To shake all cares and business from our age
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburdened crawl toward death.

Lear is tired of ruling,  and seeks freedom by putting handing off his worries to the young. He is subsequently lectured by none other than the Fool on the stupidity of attempting to escape. And his refusal to play his position (along with his vanity) set tragedy into motion.

As I said, I need to read it again.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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