A journalist confesses his Filipino family kept a slave and a historian tries to put the news in perspectiveHistorians in the News
Earlier this week, The Atlantic published an astonishing cover story, My Family’s Slave, about a Seattle family’s secret servant, a Filipina named Eudocia Tomas Pulido. (She was called “Lola.”) “She was 18 years old when my grandfather gave her to my mother as a gift, and when my family moved to the United States, we brought her with us. No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived,” wrote the late journalist Alex Tizon. ...
Vicente L. Rafael, a professor of Southeast Asian history at the University of Washington, shared Tizon’s story on Facebook, calling it “an amazing story about modern-day slavery in a struggling Filipino immigrant family in the U.S.” ...
As a debate about the story flared up on social media (including this post about Filipinos defending Tizon’s story), Rafael posted more on Facebook. With his permission, we’re reprinting it here:
It helps to get some historical perspective on the debate. For starters, “slavery” is not the same everywhere at all times. A lot of the comments tend to conflate Alex Tizon’s family with white slave masters, Lola with black slaves, and their household with the antebellum slave plantation. Once you’ve made these alignments, it’s easy to condemn Alex as insufficiently repentant, and the narrative as obscene and self-serving.
But that’s not the case. Servants may be enslaved but are not slaves in the way it meant prior to the Civil War in the U.S. And while there is a history of slavery in the Philippines, it was flexible and contingent, whereby the slave was never merely chattel, but could become part of the family, albeit a lowly and exploited member. Power relations between masters and slaves were mediated not just by the imperatives of the marketplace and by ideologies of race.
In Alex’s narrative (and in everyday experience of Filipinos who grew up with servants), they are also materialized in affective ties of pity (awa), reciprocal indebtedness (utang na loob), shame (hiya) that hold together as much as they pull apart the master to and from the servant. (Thus the kinship term, “Lola,” grandmother, used to refer to Eudocia: not a “slave name” as others have said, but a term of endearment even as she was often humiliated and abused.)
These affective ties in turn provide the servant a kind of moral leverage that she can use to hold the master accountable or account for her own status and acquiescence. And Catholicism, which has its own discourse about the universal enslavement of humans to God, provides a kind of ideological referent for reproducing and sustaining relations of inequality — but also calling those on top to account for their treatment of those below. ...
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