9 degrees west: pt.2

see pt.1

When I walk in, the chair stands before me. Low and sleek, it sits upon a short shelf that elevates it just a few inches off the floor. It’s long arms and short legs are made of a coarse-grained Brazilian wood that has been sanded to perfect smoothness. Someone, a craftsperson or a day laborer, has spent a long time gently, carefully polishing it by hand. The fine grit paper moving in a single direction until the surface of the grain has been entirely buffed, as soft as a child’s skin. It’s a dark umber color and the shape its arms make is like a U with a firm but unassuming back in the middle. Inviting me, beckoning me like an embrace that I didn’t know I was waiting for. Its long, sweeping lines suggest both motion and stability. A firmness, a confidence I wasn’t previously aware a piece of furniture could possess. Mesmerized I stand there, I don’t see her start to approach. 

She greets me in English. Skeptically, she asks “Where are you from?” Taken by surprise, I’m rarely sure how to answer this question. “Seattle,” I finally say after a moment of hesitation. “Os Estados Unidos.” Not wanting to shout across the long room, I make my way toward her. She stands before a large wooden dining table, also immaculately constructed. One that could comfortably seat 10 or more. Above it a chandelier made of handblown glass illuminates this section of the room.

“I’ve never been,” she says. 

I watch her as she begins to talk. Her age is unclear, but I suspect she looks older than she actually is, probably in her early 60s. She fidgets with a lighter and as she speaks, I keep waiting for her to excuse herself to go smoke. Her skin is pallid, paper thin around her cheeks and under her eyes are the inverse of bags. Depressions almost, they are a pale cyan-green in color. Her lips are carved with an alluvium that leads from the mandibular portion of her mouth to the delta that is her next cigarette. Like channels that become canyons as water flows through them, these lines have been formed by the decades of pursing and puckering around the butt of one of capitalism’s greatest achievements. 

She is telling me about her life. Her career in stage design throughout Europe before recently returning to Lisbon where she grew up, and into the world of architecture and design. She is telling me about her childhood. “Artists, my parents were very bohemian,” she says. “When I was a young girl, we would sail from Lisbon to Angola stopping at each of the territories along the way. First Madeira and the Azores, then Cape Verde, Bissau and Sao Tome before we’d finally stop in Luanda.” 

I make a mental note that she chooses the word territory. I hear this regularly. It suggests a level of nonchalance that belies Portugal’s historical brutality. I’m curious, but I suspect this is more perceptual than translational. As if Angola, Brazil, Goa and Mozambique were just satellites orbiting the paternal sun that was Portugal. Paying tribute and in return, receiving the gift of a heavy hand and watchful eye of the Catholic Church.

In the mid 1700’s Portugal experienced a bit of a liberal renaissance. It officially abolished slavery in 1761. But the country’s economy was heavily dependent on its colonies. Even though Brazil gained independence in 1822, slavery wasn’t definitively abolished there until 1888. Brazil’s production of coffee and sugar, and its massive mining and timber operations relied too heavily on slave labor for it to become illegal there. And without Brazil and the products it sent to market, Portugal’s economy would have collapsed. But with slavery being illegal, it presented a tricky maneuver for maintaining the labor pool. The illegality did not deter Portuguese slave traders, nor did it put them out of business. It simply compelled a level of creativity that hadn’t been required in the transatlantic slave trade—an industry started by Portugal in the mid 1400’s. Like any other commodity, slave traders turned to the open market to procure their human cargo, something they found an abundance of, where else, but the United States.

One of my objectives when I decided to move here was to learn more about Portugal’s role in the slave trade. I knew Portugal was fundamental in its creation. And I knew that the country’s early tactics both in the procurement of slaves and in its effort to colonize parts of South American, India, East Asia and a large swath of Africa were particularly brutal. I’m especially curious about how children are taught about their country’s history. As an American, I appreciate the way my country’s hands are far from clean, and having grown up much of my childhood in the southeast, I suspect the education I received in public school is probably a narrative that includes aspects of the truth, but is far from its entirety. 

One of the things that took me many years to reconcile was the antebellum notion that the civil war was not really about slavery. Many people, especially in the south—educated liberals even, will give you the nuanced view that it was really about a way of life. And while I understand that argument, that the war was about the defense of an agrarian lifestyle, and an economy that was heavily dependent on certain agricultural products like cotton and indigo that are very labor intensive, to say that it’s not really about slavery is like saying that the first gulf war wasn’t really about oil. We can couch those arguments under other headings, but the reality is that all of those reclassified points of view fundamentally come down to one thing, and in this case, it’s slavery. 

Luckily, my third grade US history teacher was African-American. My education was free of the whitewash that many American children are fed that Africans had been brought to the Americas as an opportunity and that in a lot of cases, they actually had it pretty good. As third graders, I’m sure we were sheltered from many of the harsh realities of what the life of a person who’d been kept in bondage and worked literally to death might have been like. But still, as my elementary and middle school years progressed, the idea that the civil war was about something larger than just an unpleasant labor dispute is what stuck with me. I remember clearly a conversation with a close friend in seventh grade. “You know the civil war had nothing to do with slavery,” he scoffed at me, as if I was the one who hadn’t been paying attention in class.

I don’t think I’m alone however. I recently heard someone say that the majority of Americans believe as much. I think it’s also important to note the ways the south was blamed for having an unjust system of production when the north benefited from that cheap labor in its textile mills, garment industries, and other manufacturing. There’s hardly a lack of complicity to go around. The first northern states in the US didn’t abolish slavery until 1780—almost 20 years after Portugal. In fact, congress didn’t amend the constitution to formally abolish slavery in the US until the end of the civil war in 1865. And even that was constructed to be a Swiss cheese of loopholes.

Portugal is sometimes referred to as ‘the least racist country in Europe,’ which seems pretty dubious. I’m grateful for the opportunity to escape the US long enough to be able to get some perspective, but Lisbon is not a place where my identity will be forcefully confronted. The challenges to my awareness here are more subtle, and I have the choice to accept or ignore them much as I would in the US. I merely get a reprieve from the 24 hour news cycle and a shift in my frame of reference by a slight few degrees, just enough to remind myself who I am, where I am, and why I am. Few of us are free from responsibility. But in light of current events of the early part of 2020, we also have an immense opportunity. In the last decade, I’ve become increasingly convinced that much of the work we have to do to reconcile our past is dependent on how we show up every day. That through basic interactions in grocery stores and on the street, we have as much power to make change as we do when we show up at the polls. That through understanding our past, the histories we’re culturally and ancestrally linked to hold immense power over us that we can’t move beyond without a willingness to understand them with humility and grace. That this is a systemic process that will take years or even generations to heal. A time frame that requires a point of view and patience far beyond what our desire for instant gratification typically allows. There is power in our words and therefore we need to choose them carefully. How can we resolve hundreds of years of historical culpability if we’re not honest about what we’re even talking about? To seek truth is to accept the parts of ourselves that might be easier or more pleasant to overlook. But given that choice, is that a choice at all?

~ by namderf on March 30, 2020.