A thought experiment

Since today we commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., here in the United States, I would like to share a thought experiment of mine from a while back, pondered during the long drive from Tucson, Arizona to Los Angeles, California:

For whatever reason, I had been thinking of slavery. In that vein, I tried to imagine that here I am, going about my business, engaged in the everyday activities of my life. Then someone I don’t know comes along out of nowhere, and snatches me into their car and drives off.

My first hope would be that someone had seen us, that they were phoning for help. Then I would think, “My family will try to find me; I can’t just disappear.” I don’t know what these men want, or what they intend. Already, the experience has turned very bad.

We pull up to the harbor, where people are being held in cages, awaiting transport on one of the large ships in the harbor. How can this be? Where are the forces of justice to stop whatever is happening? How can it be happening??

But the hours pass by, then the days. No one comes. No one knows I’m here. They might think I’ve died already, gone in the middle of my ordinary routines. Anxiously I sit in these corrals, praying that someone will discover what has happened. The men around me do not speak my language, and no one I try to talk to will respond. At best I am brutalized for the attempt. They have no respect for me; they do not even treat me as a human, an individual.

Without respite, only the most megear food and water, we are finally carried off into the holds of the ship. It starts to dawn on me that these people intend to take me away from my life. A panic starts to set in. “Come on!!”, I inwardly yell, to my friends and my family, “Find me!” – before I am taken away; before I become truly hard to find. But nothing happens. The nightmare will not end. I shake my head, but nothing comes clear. How can this be my waking reality?

Then we are on the ship, in conditions I have never suffered before. I feel the steep shore waves crash against the hull change into the calmness of ocean swells. We are actually leaving. Here I am, a few days ago someone, somebody, and now I am carried into the sea as if I were cargo. Still there is no one to represent my interests, or hear my plea that something is wrong. It must be wrong. Everything about it feels as wrong as anything I’ve ever imagined – and yet it is happening. That is what I still cannot grasp.

After great lengths, we land in a country populated by people foreign to me. They look different, talk different, even smell different. Nothing is like what I’m used to. My captors prod me from the ship, and line us up along the shore. How can anyone find me now? Where am I? I cannot ask. My fellow captives do not know. Like an illness taken physical form, I am swept up into a miasma of pain and misery, with no one to apply to for mercy, no one to understand. I am truly alone now.

What happens afterwards I do not fully understand, except that I’ve been sent to a particular place, along with other people from my country. We’re shown a field, implements to work it, and expected to do what this implies. If anyone complains, or resists, the beatings are severe. Those around us – who live in the other houses – see nothing wrong with this. We cannot ask them for help. They even have slaves of their own. So I pick up the hoe and start to work the dirt. It is work I’m not used to, work I have not done before. Still, no one has found me.

As the days pass, I begin to realize something which will not – cannot – take complete form in my mind: No one is ever going to find me. How can I hope in a place without compassion, where I’m not even a person? We are abused without cause, and worked beyond reason. And there is no recourse. This is what I cannot fathom.

The months pass by, the seasons change, and it begins to occur to me that nothing will ever change about this. Not only will I not be found, but nor will I find my way back to the life I had known. What I see now, this misery and injustice, has become my life – and will remain my life. Not for seasons, not for years: but all the rest of my days. My life has been forfeit, without fair exchange. One day I was myself, the next it was worse than being struck dead: I live a ghost life now, of harsh toil and labor, at the whim of people I would otherwise not care to know. And this is just the beginning…

When I try to imagine an experience like this, I cannot bear the pain of it. Even simple acts of injustice cause us anger, who were born to freedom. If someone forbids my will, the impulse is to fight. But what if the opportunity to do so were forcibly denied – forever?? My conclusion is that the reality of slavery is something a free mind cannot bear to comprehend.