The last few days I have been reading a book that clarifies where we are. David Brion Davis, writing on slavery in the west, says “dehumanization was absolutely central to the slave experience.” The New York Review of Books says Davis’ book, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation (Knopf, 2014), and the two that preceded it, have “shaped history,” by which they mean shaped the way we view our past and its effect on the present. Davis’ book studies the dehumanization of the enslaved person and the implications for the slave coming into freedom.
The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation reminds me that, two hundred and thirty-eight years after the founding of this nation, we—historians, politicians, artists, writers and novelists, black people and white—are still finding the problem of slavery unresolved and are still searching for ways of understanding our past and are still dealing with the consequences of slavery. It is not likely that the problem of queers is going to be resolved any sooner, and that, even if we get marriage equality throughout the United States in the immediate future, or complete legal equality, we will still be researching and talking about and finding new facts and new approaches to the dehumanization to which queers have been subjected all of the years of the history of the United States.
I assume that one of the things that we—lesbians and gays and bisexual and transgender and queer—will come to understand about ourselves is that, for two hundred and thirty-eight years we were dehumanized, that to some extent that is continuing even today from some quarters. This dehumanization has been a psychological exploitation that had implications for individuals and for the community as a whole. Those implications were both destructive and but also the occasion for creative and effective resistance.
Davis’s book instructs us that legal equality and freedom will not bring with them an instant end to suffering. We will still have with us the walking wounded, survivors of the long years in the wilderness, who exhibit the effects of wounds received thirty or forty or fifty years ago. We count in our ranks men and women, the recently wounded, who fight in the current wars. Davis’s book, published this year but about events in the first half of the nineteenth century, predicts a long, hard, twilight struggle for queers, whatever happens this year with marriage.