Chris Bouton: This week, the Atlantic published a piece by Alex Tizon, who passed away in March, titled, “My Family’s Slave.” The piece detailed the life of Eudocia Tomas Pulido also known as Lola, who worked without pay for the author’s mother first in the Philippines and then came to the United States with the family in the 1960s. After the death of Tizon’s mother, Lola lived with the author until her death. Today, we’re going to discuss the major problems of the piece in detail, so if you haven’t read it, follow this link and then read the chat below.
Erin Bartram: There have been lots of responses by journalists and historians, but I’d like to enter this one in particular into the record:
The Seattle Times: Why the obituary for Eudocia Tomas Pulido didn’t tell the story of her life in slavery
Chris: The piece has generated a lot of controversy for Tizon’s portrayal of Lola as well as his own largely unacknowledged complicity in her enslavement. The biggest question I had after reading the article was what kind of story did the author think he was trying to tell? What kind of story did his editor(s) think he was trying to tell? And what story is Tizon actually telling? Because in my eyes, they’re not the same thing.
Erin: That’s largely my response as well. As the piece wore on, I kept thinking “If he’s doing this to apologize, he’s not doing a good job. If he’s doing it to redeem himself in some way, he’s certainly not doing a good job.”
Chris: Especially if, as the editor’s note that accompanied the piece explained, Tizon believed that every person had an “epic story” to tell. What epic story is he telling here?
Erin: Even in a piece where he is supposedly centering Lola’s story, he seems baffled by the idea that anyone else appreciated her or loved her more than he did – which wasn’t very much. His reason for delaying his trip to return her ashes was that he didn’t think anyone back in the Philippines would care that much!
Chris: If it’s Lola’s story, he does a pretty poor job of it. Her humanity shines through in moments that are totally unintended by the author.
The framing device is his journey back to the Philippines where he can’t quite comprehend why Lola’s family is all crying over her death.
Erin: Absolutely. And his inhumanity is revealed most strongly in unintended moments as well, through sentences that hit me over the head as someone (like you) who’s read a lot of slave-owners talking about their slaves.
Chris: This was very reminiscent of slaveholder narratives and justifications for holding slaves.
Erin: “We gave Lola a bedroom and license to do whatever she wanted”
not “We paid Lola for decades of uncompensated labor”
Chris: They’re not exactly the same since we’re talking about different forms of slavery in the Philippines and the United States. The history of slavery in the Philippines pre-European contact is similar to African forms of slavery pre-European contact, debt bondage, criminal bondage, war captives etc.
Right another quote that struck me was his quotes about her continuing to clean after he took her into his home.
“She didn’t know any other way to be.” and how he had to “Let her be.”
Erin: The piece is full of “let her” and “gave her” and “allowance”
Chris: I wrote this in my notes, it’s the difference between someone who is a slave versus someone who is enslaved.
Tizon writes it from the perspective of Lola as a slave. Not someone who is enslaved.
Chris: Let me make that distinction clear for anyone unfamiliar with it, if she’s a slave (the noun) then that is the totality of her existence. She’s wholly defined by it. If she is enslaved (the adjective), then the enslavement is part of her life, but it isn’t the whole of her existence.
There’s more to her than her enslavement and it even comes through in a way in the piece, but Tizon presents it more as an oddity than her expressions of herself. This is a woman who taught herself to read through word puzzles. There’s her humanity.
Erin: One little line that I think really shows that slave/enslaved difference is also one that I don’t think Tizon intended to be as telling as it is.
“It was too far,” she said. “Maybe your Mom and Dad won’t let me go home.”
For all that Tizon and his family weaponized the idea of “home” and “family” against Lola, another common thread we see in the history of slavery and domestic service, she explicitly stated that her home was not inherently wherever the Tizons were.
Chris: Yes, and Tizon expressed surprise that when Lola went home late in her life that she didn’t want to stay there.
By that point in her life and in the lives of the family she left behind, her “home” was gone. It wasn’t earlier when she wanted to go home in the 1970s when her parents were sick.
Erin: And the Tizons’ refusal to let her go home was again framed in the same terms you’d use to deny a teenager some frivolity when money was tight in a family.
Chris: It’s the casualness of their cruelty that is really striking.
Erin: There are so many truly disgusting moments in this piece.
And Tizon brings up his mother’s own journey as a woman in the medical profession but can’t quite get himself to the point where he admits “you can be an oppressed person and oppress other people and that’s awful”
Chris: When Tizon describes his mother’s death, he tries to contrast her “successful” life as a doctor, working with the developmentally disabled, and her still holding another human being in bondage, like it’s a playful contradiction.
Chris: It’s also largely unacknowledged that Lola’s labor made this “self-made” immigrant family’s success possible.
And in that sense, there are an awful lot of connections to be made about the unpaid labor of women more generally, but those aren’t made either.
I think it says an awful lot that the grandfather got a slave as a replacement for his wife who died
Chris: This story has a lot of elements that speak to more universal themes, like the unpaid labor of women.
Erin: It seems to me like this is a fascinating story that you do not let a central figure tell on their own.
I’m not a professional writer or journalist or editor, but
Because, as you said, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to feel at the end of this piece, but I don’t think I felt what Tizon wanted me to feel.
Chris: Lola’s relationship with Tizon’s mother reminded me of plantation mistresses in the Old South whose identity and status relied on the unfree labor of African-American women. And African-American women’s refusal to work constituted not only laziness, but an attack on the entire system itself.
I have a lot of questions about the behind the scenes writing and editing of this article.
First, in the editor’s note, the editor talks a lot about Tizon, but not about Lola.
Her name doesn’t even appear.
Second, the editor mentions that he believes that the founders of the Atlantic magazine, 19th century abolitionists would be surprised that people would still be enslaved in the 21st century.
Erin: I think saying this piece, as framed, carries on the abolitionist mission of the magazine, is pretty galling.
Chris: I don’t think 19th century abolitionists were that naïve. I think the editor is naïve for presuming that they would be surprised.
The editor sees this as Tizon’s story, not Lola’s.
Erin: “his story—his epic story”
Chris: And that is deeply problematic.
Erin: I wish I’d thought to look up whether The Atlantic published any slave narratives
Douglass published three pieces, it seems.
But none were anything like a version of Lola’s story.
Chris: I think the Atlantic published William Parker’s narrative, but that was after the war, I think.
Erin: One thing that really bothers me, ultimately, is the way this “epic story” replicates and normalizes so many of the things that historians push back against in discussions of slavery.
Erin: Centering the owner rather than the enslaved person, the whole “she didn’t know any different” line
Chris: There’s another part that struck me, the “I gave her an ATM card and tried to teach her to drive, so she could get away line” and his shock that she was too scared to do either one.
I was thinking of using that whole passage when my students say, “why didn’t slaves run away if it was so bad”
Chris: If she knew how to drive, where would she go?
Most slaves didn’t run away. They didn’t run away because they’d be leaving their whole lives behind, families, kinship networks, and the only world they’d ever known, for what? Some vague sense that they might reach freedom? Or that they might get captured, beaten, sold, or even killed?
The fact that as many slaves ran away as they did is remarkable. And they did it to try and gain freedom, but also to better their own living conditions.
Erin: One of the runaway posters I use in class is a slave running away from Alabama and the owner says he thinks he’s running back to Virginia where he’s from.
And it always confuses some students.
Though I do note that female students are more likely to realize that running away might mean leaving children behind.
Chris: Right and that’s why temporary or short-term flight was a common female resistance strategy.
Erin: It did draw my mind back to one of my favorite research finds – you probably have a lot of these because you study slavery, but I tended to find them as “incidental” discussions
This was in a letter written by John L. O’Sullivan’s brother just after the election of Polk.
“Slavery as it appears in the towns at any rate is, I think, by no means the awful bugbear that it is made to work upon the sympathies of northern abolition audiences. The slaves in Norfolk, for instance, are well clothed and fed, very kindly treated, and quite intelligent. In fact, it seems to me that if the present state of society is to continue, and some of us are to live in luxury, while others are to work hard in laborious and menial offices, that it is much better for the happiness of all that there be a class to take the latter place who shall be brought up from infancy to habits of submission and respect, and be prevented from learning anything that may make them discontented. Our country is now thinly populated, and not for many years can we expect to have at the north any very frightful amounts of pauperism, but if the rules that govern society are such that, when every acre here teems as every acre in England does, we are to have an immense throng of hungry proletarians crying aloud not for bread only, but frankly totally unable to purchase for themselves anything besides the hardest necessities, and often starving to death, then I should most decidedly prefer the existence of slavery. Perhaps my hypothesis is wrong, and we are never to be reduced to that extremity. ”
I just like that it both tries to perpetuate the narrative of everything being fine and also pulls back the veil on the system completely.
Chris: It’s revealing, but not in the way that the author intended. And the same is true of Tizon and this article.
It’s also being written from NY to a woman in Norfolk at the time, so is a spectacular example of historical mansplaining.
Chris: It’s not just a 21st century phenomenon kids!
Erin: ‘Twas ever thus
Chris: The other thing that struck me about Tizon’s article is his refusal to acknowledge his own complicity or really accept any kind of responsibility for it.
There’s some winking and nodding to his role in her life, but he doesn’t reckon with it.
Erin: There’s a lot of “what could I do?”
Like, you might think you’re anti-slavery, but you’re no abolitionist.
Chris: He’s generally aware that he and his family have committed a grave and unforgivable injustice, but he only filters it through his own feelings and experience.
So he can never reach the point of empathizing with her.
Erin: If he did, he’d have written her epic story
Chris: Yes, exactly.
It’s the banality of evil.
Erin: And he’s no Oskar Schindler
Chris: He doesn’t have some grand reason for not helping or some sophisticated justification. It’s just a lot of lazy excuses.
She overstayed her visa, so we couldn’t report it.
Chris: As if overstaying your visa compares in any way, shape, or form to enslaving another human being for decades.
Erin: A visa that THEY GOT FOR HER
We enslaved her past the point of her visa, so we had to keep enslaving her or we’d have had to face consequences
Erin: It’s just so fantastically self-centered because he doesn’t see Lola as having a self.
Chris: She’s an object of curiosity in the story.
To be gawked at.
Erin: IT’S SO GROSS AND INFURIATING
Chris: Someone whose quirky habits annoy him.
Like she won’t stop cleaning or she saves stuff from the trash.
Erin: And it’s made worse by putting her on the cover in that black and white photo like she’s the one you’re going to learn about
But he thinks he can say that about her because she’s like family, don’t you know! I can say bad things about my mom, but you can’t.
Chris: In that way, also, there’s a comparison to Southern slaveholding.
Slaves as part of the “family,” the bonds that develop between “family” members, and the defensiveness at outsiders criticizing the institution.
Erin: It made me think about the standard black domestic servants in movies in the first half of the 20th century
And Aunt Jemima and Rastus and all the rest
Alongside the narrative of bad black parents who are never around their own children.
Which is another thing I hated – that he just raised this issue of her utter emotional and sexual isolation and then dropped it
Chris: Well and he treated it, again, like a curiosity to be gawked at.
Isn’t it fascinating that she was a virgin?
Erin: I think that’s why I find the cover image so insulting
A more appropriate version would be Lola styled as Baartman
And by “appropriate” I mean awful but more honest
Chris: It suggests a humane approach to her story that never appears in the text.
Erin: This just gets more infuriating the more I think about it. I think it’s notable that the piece by the Seattle Times is so much more honest and horrified.
Chris: Part of the power of this story is that it reveals in broad terms the ways that human beings justify their cruelty and mistreatment of others. The ways they rationalize it away and refuse to confront or even recognize it. That’s something that’s specific to this story and its participants and the society from which this emerged. It’s also similar to the other, similar ways in which humans have enslaved and otherwise mistreated one another across the centuries.
That’s why I believe this story has elicited such strong responses.
Erin: Lots of people have gotten caught up in talking about whether it’s okay to compare this to the history of chattel slavery in the US, and there’s been some pushback against that.
But I think that’s because it’s a way to avoid the resonance of those human behaviors that we see in both settings.
Chris: It’s not a 1-1 comparison, but there certainly are similarities that we’ve touched on.
Like I wrote earlier, slavery in the Philippines took on a different form than American slavery, but those differences don’t negate the similarities.
I look forward to reading whatever the editor has to say in response to all of this.
If they say something at all.
Chris: I hope they take the opportunity for some critical self-reflection about the article and what lessons they can learn from it.
Hopefully they’re the right ones.