by Piper McDonigle
“It was the first slave auction I had ever attended and I must say it was a greater display of horror and vileness than I had ever dreamed possible.
It was held in a dungeon-like Hall, which one enters at ground level. However, as one moves closer to the front one goes deeper and deeper (what a matching of moral and physical worlds!) until reaching the main stage, which must be several feet into the earth.
The room was quite well-lit, for this deed, foul as it was, had official sanction and did not need to be conducted in the shadows. The light was needed also for better examination of the “wares” for sale.
But, the more I saw of those around me, the more I wished that the room would go dark. For the people were horrible to witness. The men were wild-eyed and desperate characters, trembling with an unholy excitement, while the women – I blush to admit that there were some among the buyers – were of the degraded class one expects to see in the colleges.
The auctioneer came out upon the stage eventually and attempted without success to establish some order. Watching this man alternately rouse and sooth the beast-like crowd all evening I was terrified and realized just how close to sheer chaos the Hall really was.
Finally a vast door swung open and the auction began, as slaves were brought out and lined up for all to see. The crowd showered the terrified freshman with cheers and catcalls, each one worthy of a lunatic. Each slave, man and woman wore a number, apparently their names having been taken with their freedom.
They were sent off then, and the first group (five girls) was brought back in. The bidding for these poor women was horrible to witness. The purchasers, mere boys, many of them, roared in competition, the entire bidding imbued with coarse joviality.
But more ghastly, more hideous than that were the women who bid for the men. Here the battles waged even fiercer, the prices higher and the shouting from the women – I can hardly call them ladies – was most distressing to a moral man such as myself.
The buying and selling went on for more than an hour. I saw some things I can barely stand to think about, much less, say. As one example, I saw a boyfriend and girlfriend split up and sold to different masters. My heart broke, and I turned to leave, but I feared the crowd.
And then I saw her—among the slaves she stood out, a woman of great beauty. Her face was beyond description. Her jeans were exquisitely embroidered. I stared at her in disbelief, and suddenly the auctioneer had called her number! Bidding on her had begun! The next thing I knew I was shouting a bid at the top of my lungs. The mood of this horrible event was more infective than I had realized. I like to think I was moved to action by a desire not to have her sold to do menial work for one of those rouges, but I wish I could be sure this was my motive.
I grieve to admit what happened next, for I bullied, bluffed, and bidded my way to victory and when I marched to the stage to sign for my prize I was as proud as any of the monsters.
But later when I returned to my room, my brief triumph was long over and my spirit was crushed by my surrender to animalism. I made up my mind that when my slave arrived, two days hence, I must free her.
The days dragged until—a knock on the door. She was so lovely, I nearly forgot my purpose. “Fair lass,” I said. “You have suffered much. Go now! I free you.”
“What the heck?” she queried. “Didn’t you hire me to clean your room?”
I do not know by what means her spirit had been broken, but she had no will to escape. However, my room looks much better now, though she forgot to shine my other shoes. ”
- Auguste Dupin, The Juniatian, October 31, 1973, Vol. XLVII, No. 5
This year is the first year that the rugby team hasn’t had a “man market,” a fundraiser wherein male rugby players were sold off to the highest bidder, who was able to have the rugby player do any task of his or her choosing, within reason, of course. I am assuming that, at some point, the “freshman slave auction,” involving both boys and girls, was stopped as well.
After reading this article, I think I understand why.
While I understand that the fundraisers, and the article, were intended in a light-hearted way, the comparisons to real slave auctions are painful to read, and I found myself cringing at the “jokes” made by the 1973 author.
At first, I thought it might be satire, but eventually the author made it apparent that he was in on the joke, and found the whole thing entirely funny.
The intended joke draws close comparisons between the real slave trade and the fundraiser. The author’s own participation in the auction shows he is amused by the whole situation, yet the comparisons seem to mock one of the more terrible events in human history. I wouldn’t be surprised if his article is what drew attention to the fact that the auction struck too close to home and was offensive in the first place.
It felt insensitive and uncomfortable to read the article. The Man Market may have given the same feeling of uncertainty about something intended as a joke to those who attended it.
At the Man Market, they referred to the rugby boys up for sale “as servants for a day,” not slaves, but it still meant the same thing. Over time, the “joke” of selling people has grown tamer; they didn’t pin numbers or discard names at the Man Market. They called it a fundraiser rather than an auction; it was subtler.
Despite growing tamer, the nature of the fundraiser still had unfortunate implications. Now the “joke” should come to an end. I hope no one would argue that we should still use words like “gay” in a negative context, belittle women in a sexist manner or allow racism at our College. These things have rightfully fallen away over the years. They are no longer acceptable.
Our journey is slow, but I like to think people are noticing hurtful practices and putting an end to them. Jokes have their place, but are not always appropriate for every context. Does the joke benefit the vulnerable group by pointing out, in a humorous way, something wrong in the world? Or is it cruel, silly and ignorant? Hearing people complain that we are becoming “too politically correct” makes my skin crawl. Hasn’t that been the motto of every group that has persecuted another group?
While I understand the Man Market was fun and never done with cruel intentions, I agree it is a tradition that should be left in the past. As we move forward in time, certain jokes lose their humor and must be abandoned. Slavery is not a joking matter. Bidding on another human being simply cannot be done, even in the name of fun. It carries too weighty a history.
The prevalence of crude humor today is far greater than it has ever been. I actually like some harsh joking, but we need to be careful not to be desensitized. We need to occasionally remember the potential pain behind funny things and realize some things are not to be taken lightly.
I hear people complain about the “PC police,” and how being politically correct ruins everything fun, but that doesn’t have to be true. I think we’re clever enough to find sources of amusement at the expense of others.
I am all for laughing at the painful things in life; one of my favorite quotes is Stephen Hawking’s remark that “life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.” I also agree that most really funny things can potentially be taken as offensive by somebody out there.
There is a difference between joking and cruelty, however. Mocking the atrocities of the slave trade in a yearly event was thoughtless, not funny.
Categories: Volume 97 Issue 4 Campus Spin