What Does It Feel Like to Have a Slave?

Once, for five days, I found out.

A boy walks along the side of a passenger ferry docked near Dhaka, Bangladesh.
A boy walks along the side of a passenger ferry docked near Dhaka, Bangladesh. (David Bathgate / Corbis)

This article is part of a series of responses to Alex Tizon’s Atlantic article “My Family’s Slave.” The full series can be found here.

No one thinks the enslavement of Eudocia “Lola” Pulido by Alex Tizon and his parents was morally defensible, but some have condemned the family with greater sympathy than others. Among the more sympathetic is New York’s Jesse Singal, who reads Tizon’s story as a tale of moral luck—one that teaches how a decent person like Tizon becomes implicated in a wicked social arrangement. Among the less sympathetic is Josh Shahryar, a journalist and activist who says Tizon was a monster.

As a former slaveholder myself, I am more inclined to see things as Singal does. For a period of about five days in 1999, I had two child slaves at my disposal. Like Tizon, I did not ask for them. I acquired the use of them by accident, and at the time I didn’t even realize that they were slaves.

Here’s the story. In 1999, I flew to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. It was a perfectly inopportune moment for a holiday. I knew no one there and had no hotel booked. Bangladeshis were engaged in one of their great national pastimes, a political demonstration in the form of a crippling general strike that paralyzed the country’s economy by forbidding all motorized traffic. The strike (called a hartal) would begin the next morning. Anyone caught driving risked being dragged into the street, beaten, and forced to watch his car smashed to bits.

A family from my flight noticed my forlorn presence at the baggage carousel and deduced that I would not easily survive the impending chaos. They invited me to their home, and before I could decide whether to accept, my backpack found its way into the trunk of their car, and we were driving together toward the upscale neighborhood of Gulshan. Even there, along the roadside we passed the usual sights of Bangladeshi poverty: children sleeping on thin jute mats; open sewers; little smoky fires heating battered teakettles.

When we arrived at the home, around 1 a.m., the head of the family roused two children, a boy and a girl no more than seven years old, and commanded them to prepare a bed for me. They complied groggily. And for the next five days, the two children attended to me—bringing food and tea, cleaning up—as I waited out the strike. I was not permitted to work or repay the hospitality, and when I went for a walk and brought back a nice bouquet of flowers, the family accepted it only with remonstrance.

When I asked about the kids, I was told their parents were paupers and had relinquished them into domestic service, in hope of a better life. But those children were slaves, even if it occurred to me only months later that that word was the only one that fit. They lived and worked at the orders of the family; they had no choice. It did not matter that they had air-conditioning, that the family was teaching them to read, that they were not, I think, beaten. Nor did it matter that their lives as slaves were arguably far better than the lives of the free children I had seen as we drove in, sleeping with a curb for a pillow or being forced into prostitution. Tizon writes that Lola would tidy up and work around the house even when ordered to take a break; that was my experience of slaves as well. When I told them not to bother tidying my things, they ignored me. The only kindness I could offer in return was to use my authority over the remote control to turn on cartoons, which they loved.

Was I a monster? Perhaps. I can confirm, though, from this experience that the feeling of monstrosity is distinctly numb. Indeed, to accept their hospitality—their free labor—did not at the time feel like a moral decision at all. It didn’t feel like much of anything. Tizon, as an adult with the power to emancipate Lola earlier than he did, has much more to answer for—a lifetime of complicity, rather than five days. But I’m not sure whether that makes the moral denunciation easier or harder. From reading his story, I suspect it might make it harder.

If that is the case, slavery resembles other practices that have persisted long after most people have been understood them to be repugnant. Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at NYU (and a former teacher of mine), has shown how slavery, foot-binding, and dueling were three such former practices. Nowadays one might add eating meat, spewing greenhouse gases, or (as Peter Singer has encouraged people to understand) spending money on meaningless luxuries when an equal amount could instead save the life of an innocent child. These are depravities that nearly everyone reading this sentence perpetrates every day. Their regularity makes them nearly impossible to fix.

Somehow in the cases of these other moral outrages, we are less prone to the unshaded thinking that characterizes discussion of slavery. I do not mean that we should equivocate about the evil of slavery, but that some moral discussions are instantly understood to involve angels and demons—slavery is one of these—and others to involve fallible humans, in a condition that is essentially ironic and cruel. Obviously, guilt over antebellum plantation slavery, one of the original sins of this country, has something to do with Americans’ instinctively pious attitude. But it is an attitude worth resisting. As I. F. Stone once remarked, explaining his admiration for the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson, “History is tragedy, not melodrama.” To beg for Lola’s story to be told as melodrama, with Tizon twirling a villainous mustache, would be to ask the author to be untrue to himself and his subject alike.