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More thoughts on empathy

Xray of bound feet (Wikimedia Commons)

Warning: empathy is not for the squeamish

Readers of Speak Right On often want to know how I was able to write in the first person as an imagined enslaved person. The differences between Dred Scott and me are enormous. I'm a 21st century-educated-free-white woman, writing about a 19th century-illiterate-enslaved-black man. As I mentioned in my last post, few of us today know what it means to be enslaved, so it takes empathy.

What was the connective tissue, though, that I massaged in order to find empathy? There were several things I drew upon in my personal life—pains, injustices, fears—but the best way I think I can help others understand is to try to elicit empathy from you.

I will tell you a story, and it will make you cringe. This is a true story about very young girls in China, and like the practices of American slavery, these horrors are rarely perpetrated today. But for centuries, girls as young as four were deliberately deformed so that they would be considered more beautiful.

That probably makes you shake your head, but I doubt the empathy is flowing yet. The devil is in the details, and if you can bear to face the devil, read on.

How long do you think your foot is? I measured mine: from heel to big toe, it's about 10 inches long. So I did a double-take when I read that the desired foot length for grown women was less than 5 inches. The ideal was 4 inches. Presumably women in China 100, 300, 500 years ago were smaller than I, but that small?

Obviously not; otherwise, binding the feet wouldn't have been necessary. So how was this "ideal" foot size obtained?

  • First the toes were broken. Some variations stretched the big toe up instead of bending it under.
  • Cloth bindings were next wrapped tightly around the foot, pulling the toes toward the sole of the foot.
  • But of course, that doesn't take off enough inches, so the arch of the foot had to be broken.
  • Pushing the foot so that it was in straight alignment with the leg, a sturdy cloth was wrapped around the foot and sewn shut so the girl would not, could not, loosen it.
  • Finally, you repeat these steps with the other foot.

I don't know what they did about the crying and screaming. 

But I do know that the broken toes, the broken arch, the tiny foot bones, the sinews and yes, the toenails, continued to grow. So daily—and in wealthier homes, several times daily—the girl received a pedicure. Her nails were carefully trimmed to avoid ingrowing, and the broken feet were kneaded. And the soles and arch and joints were beaten, beaten to make them more flexible.And the broken toes were folded back to the sole and rebound, and with each binding the cloth was pulled tighter.

Eventually, for most, the feet became numb. For the most unfortunate, they did not go numb.

Toes sometimes fell off, and that was considered a good thing, because the foot could be bound even tighter. Other times, septic shock and gangrene claimed the life of the poor girl. Older women not infrequently incurred broken hips and other broken bones, because they could not balance themselves in a standing position.

If you're cringing, then you're empathizing.


Now imagine growing up in a world that didn't want your mind to grow; it wanted you to remain childlike; it was happiest when you were stupid.

It hated your personality, any characteristic that made you you—your nature. Imagine the world used restraints as rigid as foot bindings, and it punished you if you ever dared try to loosen those bindings.

Imagine a world that beat your soul in order to soften you, deform you, limit you.

This is how I began to empathize, and I'm thinking most who read this post will also be able to—if they can bear to spend just a few minutes more pondering these questions:

  • How would you conceal who you are?

  • Where would you turn to satisfy your innate curiosity and unbidden, forbidden insights?
  • What happens to an agile mind that is deprived of literacy?
  • What happens to eloquence that has a bit shoved in its mouth to hold down the tongue?
Can we empathize with slaves?
Burn down the icons

Related Posts

Comments 5

 
Guest - Jan Olsen on Monday, 28 March 2016 13:57

I cringed. I feel the binding of little girls feet as a cruelty couched as a favor, a gift of perceived beauty for the woman-to-be: women inflicting a life of pain on a little girl so that she might be perceived as beautiful. Our society might not be so easily empathetic to bodily mutilation, for the cause of beauty is so valuable and equally arbitrary; feet, breasts, noses, thighs ( to be brief). Women choose self mutilation, self abuse to achieve fleeting "beauty". Possibly more empathy would be generated for the stifled mind of a slave, especially a male.

I cringed. I feel the binding of little girls feet as a cruelty couched as a favor, a gift of perceived beauty for the woman-to-be: women inflicting a life of pain on a little girl so that she might be perceived as beautiful. Our society might not be so easily empathetic to bodily mutilation, for the cause of beauty is so valuable and equally arbitrary; feet, breasts, noses, thighs ( to be brief). Women choose self mutilation, self abuse to achieve fleeting "beauty". Possibly more empathy would be generated for the stifled mind of a slave, especially a male.
Mary Neighbour on Monday, 28 March 2016 15:21

Jan, your comment demonstrates why it's important to exercise the empathy muscle, despite our own discomfort: we can make things better for others, for our world, by questioning our values and actions and their implications. Thank you for sharing this.

Feminine "beauty" is indeed a tangled web--and a huge industry. After we get the money out of politics, we should try getting the money out of "beauty"!

Jan, your comment demonstrates why it's important to exercise the empathy muscle, despite our own discomfort: we can make things better for others, for our world, by questioning our values and actions and their implications. Thank you for sharing this. Feminine "beauty" is indeed a tangled web--and a huge industry. After we get the money out of politics, we should try getting the money out of "beauty"!
Guest - Jan on Tuesday, 29 March 2016 20:10

I agree. The empathy muscle needs exercise. As to the beauty industry, it has forever been developing products to mask our 'selves': I curled my hair and prided myself with a good tan (an incomprehensible irony), while some ironed their hair straight and bleached their skins to a lighter shade. That caucasian features have been prized over time resulted in a type of enslavement deserving empathy, though I think it's much, much less in vogue today, as well it should be.
Being a slave as was Dred Scott is a huge stretch for me...I can only call forth crumbs of empathy from my own privileged life experience.

I agree. The empathy muscle needs exercise. As to the beauty industry, it has forever been developing products to mask our 'selves': I curled my hair and prided myself with a good tan (an incomprehensible irony), while some ironed their hair straight and bleached their skins to a lighter shade. That caucasian features have been prized over time resulted in a type of enslavement deserving empathy, though I think it's much, much less in vogue today, as well it should be. Being a slave as was Dred Scott is a huge stretch for me...I can only call forth crumbs of empathy from my own privileged life experience.
Mary Neighbour on Wednesday, 30 March 2016 15:21

I heard a disturbing story the other day, about a family in a restaurant. There were two small boys--one was "beautiful" and the other had facial deformities. An acquaintance of the adults came over to the table and fawned over the first child and completely ignored the second. She later was overheard referring to the second child as "that freak." It can be a cold, cruel world.

I heard a disturbing story the other day, about a family in a restaurant. There were two small boys--one was "beautiful" and the other had facial deformities. An acquaintance of the adults came over to the table and fawned over the first child and completely ignored the second. She later was overheard referring to the second child as "that freak." It can be a cold, cruel world.
Guest - Jeannette Gagan on Monday, 28 March 2016 20:02

What I'm rooting for is a movie to be made from SPEAK RIGHT ON! Along with a well-drafted script and well-trained actors/actresses I believe the empathy muscle would be very activated. Often people remember the emotional impact of a movie more than words in a book.

What I'm rooting for is a movie to be made from SPEAK RIGHT ON! Along with a well-drafted script and well-trained actors/actresses I believe the empathy muscle would be very activated. Often people remember the emotional impact of a movie more than words in a book.
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