Psychoanalysts on American Slavery: Privileges and Pleasures
In this presentation, Volney Gay demonstrates how psychoanalytic thought can contribute to the task of understanding the psychic mechanisms that supported the institution of American slavery and its continuing deformation of our national psyche. For nearly four centuries, millions of Americans owned slaves because they wished to. Slavery gave Presidents Washington and Jefferson and other slave owners distinctive pleasures, including those associated with the control and enjoyment of beautiful human beings. Some, including Jefferson, used their slaves sexually. Others did not. Yet if we focus only upon sexual crimes, we overlook the pleasures afforded to all owners, who used their slaves’ bodies to supply status, aesthetic gratification, and self-esteem—not just economic gain. Attempting to reconcile slavery with their Christian identities, slave owners walled off their consciences from the diverse pleasures of ownership, which they rarely trumpeted; rather, they complained about the burdens of owning the slaves they were nevertheless unwilling to free.