Word Smith: Warren
In his award winning book, The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates talks at length about the catacombs, tunnels, and dark places under the estate mansions of Virginia’s pre-Civil War America. Those small, earthy rooms were simultaneously the dungeons of slavery and the pulsating lifeblood of the plantations. Coates calls those tunnels warrens, which was a curious use of the word for me. Time to go underground.
As we have come to know her, Warren is the last name of the Democratic candidate for President, Elizabeth Warren. She may not have strong Native American roots (they go back 6 to 10 generations), just as her white skin tells of fortunes that were likely exempt from slavery. But the word warren has many other meanings closer to home.
In Oregon the word ‘warren’ is the root name of the seaside town just west of Astoria, called Warrenton. Wikipedia claims that the town was named after Daniel Knight Warren, an early settler in the region. Today it is a small, coastal town in Clatsop County, primarily known for its fishing and logging. Warrenton is safe harbor to many boat captains who charter fishing trips into the mouth of the Columbia River in search of salmon and sturgeon.
The use of the word warren also brings to my mind the prolific lagomorphs we call RABBITS. And I believe it is here in this other densely packed meaning that Coates carefully expands and disinters his underground railroad metaphor. Looking at the origin of the word, there are both natural and man-made warrens. Rabbits dig natural burrows to raise their young and protect them from predators. There are also domesticated warrens, which are man-made, enclosed tunnels used for animal husbandry. These artificial tunnels are dedicated to the raising of rabbits for their steady supply of meat and fur.
Apparently the practice of domesticated warrens evolved from the Anglo-Norman concept of a hunting license which people could claim on land they did not own. A “free warren” became the equivalent of a hunting license for a given plot of ground or its surrounding woodlands.
Rabbits, which have the reputation for prolific families, gestate their young for only 30 days. They have litters of between 4 and 12 kits (bunnies), depending on the breed. Once the kits are born, the doe can mate and get pregnant as soon as the following day. A warren typically holds up to 30 offspring – the older rabbits moving on to start their own families. The deeper the warren, the better the protection for the kits from foxes, coyotes, birds of prey and their other natural predators. In domesticated farming, the owners raise rabbits in the warrens until it is time for harvest.
There is a distinction that is often made with wild animals. If they are raised for livestock, they are either tame (do not bite) or domesticated (their procreation is controlled). It appears that all of the bonded generations of Blacks in America were in fact domesticated. Their sex lives, their procreation, their children were controlled by their slave owners. Infamously, the slaves of former Presidents (e.g. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings) were part of the patterns of control. The cuss word, M—–F—–, has its roots in the cruel rape and reproductive manipulation by the slave owners.
The Black slaves in The Water Dancer are known as “the Tasked” and they were indeed raised like unseen kits and mature domesticated possessions who entered the mansions through remote, hidden tunnels that gave them access to the headquarters of the plantation. The land and all the assets were owned by the Gentry, which Coates called “the Quality” in his novel. The Tasked were the lifeblood of the main house long before and after the tobacco harvests stripped the land of its nutrients and abandoned, too depleted for the Quality to yield a profitable cash crop. Instead of tobacco, the commercial bounty of these infertile plantations became the slaves themselves, sold down the Natchez way to greener, mid-western plantations.
From Slavery to Freedom
We have certainly come a long way from the slave trade of the antebellum south and the need for warrens, have we not? Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation saw to that, right? Our track record in the US and around the world says, “NO. Hell No!”
With the human trafficking in the sex trade today, we are near the same place we were in the US 150 years ago. Here are some persons-of-color realities:
- Sure, Blacks can vote, BUT their rights are questioned and their votes challenged after every election. What about felons and people of color in prison? Voters cards or driver’s licenses as proof of rights?
- Yes, people of color can hold public office, BUT the faces in the most visible houses don’t look like our populations. Only 52 of the 535 Congress members and 10 of the 100 Senators are African American while 12.7% of our population is Black. And Latinx? There are 37 members of Congress and 3 members of the Senate are Latinx or Hispanic. The Latinx population is continuing to rise, standing at 17.8% of the US in 2019.
- Yes, Blacks and minorities can own businesses, BUT they were the least likely to qualify for and receive PPP and government handouts, when it came time to help small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic. They are also the least likely to have a cash cushion to soften the blow of rent payments, even with the governors shutting down their businesses.
- Of course, Blacks and Latinx can own property, BUT they are often red-lined to live in neighborhoods that are the least desirable, furthest away from essential services and most likely to be hazardous to ones health than their white counterparts. The gentrification of many cities is kicking out people of color, forcing them to move to less desirable places, which is all they can afford.
- Yes, all minorities are offered an education, BUT the questions of equity and equality show their ugly underbellies when Blacks and Hispanics are the most likely to have no internet, no private place to study, no computer to access in order to be educated in this virtual learning environment. Plus the teachers of color are few and far between, giving students of color few examples of themselves as future educators.
Back to controlling the reproductive rights of slaves, sex trafficking is a continuing scourge. We had predators like Jeffrey Epstein who flourished in the trade. Last year we even had a Super Bowl ad that shouted about the atrocities in our midst. We know that sex trafficking is not just a US issue, but a global one. Recognizing that it is impossible to quantify the number of victims, since the crime has inherently existed underground, the International Labor Organization (ILO) exposed the Warrens of today. The ILO estimated that 40.3 million people were victims of modern slavery in 2016. Of those, almost 25 million were victims of forced labor and 15.4 million were in forced marriages. There is an average of 5.4 victims of human trafficking for every 1,000 people on this planet.
We don’t have to dig down into warrens to see that we have a problem. It is right in front of us in Black, Brown and White.
The dominant white culture exploits people of color for what they can get from them. People of color work the land, pick the crops, clean the houses, prepare the meals, and for the most part live far enough away as not to be seen. When will we wake up to the current atrocities? We hear about them is stark statistics when talking about Black, Brown and Red victims of Covid-19. African Americans, Latinx and Native Americans are dying at two times the rate as their white counterparts. Their infection rates and death rates are several times greater than their share of the population.
When can we right these systemic wrongs? When can we sit down and talk about better living conditions, fair housing, adequate healthcare, equal insurance, better nutrition, basic reparations? Let’s face it, this is going to cost the Wealthy. It’s going to cost all of us. Nevertheless, we must have the discussions and develop the solutions.
 Coates, Ta-Nehisi, The Water Dancer, One World Publisher, New York, 2019.