The Middle Seat is not the Middle Passage.

It looks like Print Magazine is having its very own Psychology Today moment. On their blog, imprint, Steven Heller draws attention to what he thinks are the “curious similarities” between commercial airliners and slave ships.

Heller knows that there’s something wrong with this. Why else begin with what amounts to what a rhetorician might call “praeterito,” or saying you’re not going to do something while doing it anyway:

“I don’t want to trivialize the inhumane horrors that African slaves endured on slave ships… destined for the Americas. But…”

But while I was voluntarily eating peanuts, sipping ginger ale, and watching a second-rate film while sitting uncomfortably close to a stranger for a few hours, I thought it was permissible to compare my circumstances to the middle passage. What would lead Heller to make such a callous comparison? The idea struck him, he claims, because of how uncomfortably compact coach class can be.

After a recent airplane trip, sitting tightly next to my neighbor in steerage seats, I feel the discomfort and pain endemic to the current air experience has certain curious similarities.

Putting aside the questionable comparison of coach-class in airliners to steerage-class in steamships, we arrive at the first really serious problem. That there is some sympathy between the “discomfort and pain” of coach seating and the slave ship is wrong (among other things). This might seem apparent, but it is worth detailing some of the inaccuracies. Heller wants to connect the uncomfortable crowding of coach seats to the notorious crowding of slave ships. Lets attend to the most basic difference: on a commercial aircraft you occupy a seat that is 17.5 inches wide with about 31 inches of pitch, or distance between rows of seats, and you can stand up straight in the aisle, if not in your seat. You do not have to lie down or crouch next to and on top of other people in the belly of the aircraft where the suitcases are. You occupy this space, at maximum, for 20 hours, but normally for three to six hours.

In The Slave Ship: A Human History, Marcus Rediker details the construction and management of several different slave ships. Rediker relates the story of abolitionist Thomas Clarkson’s incredulity that two tiny sloops, “built as ‘a pleasure-boat for the accommodation of six persons'” had been converted as a transatlantic slaver:

In the larger vessel of the two, the area where the slaves would be incarcerated measured thirty-one feet in length by ten feet four inches in width, narrowing to five feet at the ends. Each slave, [Clarkson] calculated, would get about three square feet. In the smaller vessel, the slave room was twenty-two feet long, eight feet (tapering to four feet) wide. The height from keel to beam was five feet eight inches, but three feet were taken up by “ballast, cargo, and provisions,” leaving for thirty slaves four square feet each and about two feet eight inches of vertical space. (62)

Two feet eight inches of vertical space.

Of course most slave ships carried more than 30 enslaved people. Rediker reproduces the observations of John Riland, who returned from Oxford to his father’s plantation in Jamaica in 1801 as a passenger aboard the slave ship Liberty:

In describing a medium-size vessel, apparently a bark or ship of approximately 140 tons, Riland began with the lower deck, the quarters where 240 enslaved people (170 males, 70 females) were incarcerated  for sixteen hours a day and sometimes longer. Riland saw the vessel’s dungeonlike qualities. The men, shackled together two by two at the wrists and ankles and roughly 140 in number, were stowed immediately below the main deck in an apartment that extended from the mainmast all the way forward. The distance between the lower deck and the beams above was four and a half feet, so most men would not have been able to stand up straight. Riland did not mention platforms, which were routinely built on the lower deck of slavers, from the edge of the ship inward about six feet, to increase the number of slaves to be carried. (68)

Three feet three inches of space. The enslaved spent sixteen or more hours a day, for months at a time, lying or seated in a crouching position.

And I haven’t yet said anything about air circulation, sanitation, nutrition, etc. So let’s just say that the only curiosity about the “curious similarities” between the physical conditions of air travel and the slave ship is that Heller thinks there are any. Even though air travel can be uncomfortable (I’m 6′ 1″ and no fan of the middle seat) it is wholly unlike the spatial constrictions of the slave ship.

Then there’s that important word that crops up in descriptions of actual slave ships, incarceration. Slave ships were floating prisons, employing the most advanced technologies available to allow a small group of people to imprison a large group of people. The ships were designed with systems of irons to prevent insurrection attempts (which were not infrequent, if rarely successful) and barricados behind which the crew could hide and fire on the enslaved. The enslaved resorted to suicide frequently enough that slave ships were equipped with a system of nets along the sides to prevent people from removing themselves from terror by any means necessary, or from the perspective of traders, from the loss of valuable “cargo.” All of this means that slave ships were not simply overcrowded vessels for transatlantic travel, they were “factories” designed to turn people into things, and to perfect the transformation of mere physical and cultural difference into a system of race-based terror and disenfranchisement.

And the matter of incarceration is important for other reasons, notably because there is something people justifiably compare to slave ships: modern prisons.  Many – from Rediker to Angela Davis to the imprisoned themselves – have argued (and I think rightly), that modern prisons are the contemporary inheritors of  not only the carceral technologies of slave ships (and plantations) but also of state surveillance and control of nonwhite populations. As one imprisoned man at Auburn State Correctional Facility (where the imprisoned are 19% white, 22% Hispanic, and 57% African American in state that is 74% white, 16% Hispanic, and 17% African American)  told Rediker (there as part of the excellent Cornell Prison Education Program), “You do know, don’t you, that we call this place ‘the modern slave ship?'”

And so, the idea that crowded airplanes are like crowded slave ships rang all the more false, because the same day that Heller posted this, the nation’s newspapers were running headlines about the Supreme Court’s decision that prison overcrowding in California constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. California’s prisons are at 200% capacity, and the evidence in the case showed that it is “an uncontested fact” that “an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six or seven days due to constitutional deficiencies.” Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, concluded that the lack of adequate physical and mental health facilities in California’s overcrowded prisons causes “needless suffering and death.”

"Salinas Valley State Prison July 29, 2008 Correctional Treatment Center (dry cages/holding cells for people waiting for mental health crisis bed)"

Stacks in the slave ship, image from the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum.

A not unusual example of California's overcrowded prisons.

The photos entered as evidence in the case show gymnasiums full of the imprisoned, sleeping in bunks stacked three high.  Particularly disturbing is the image from Salinas Valley State Prison of locker-sized cages. The caption tells us these are “dry cages/holding cells for people waiting for mental health crisis bed.” So, as a result of overcrowding, someone in the middle of a mental health crisis – something you might imagine happens with frequency in prisons – will be confined to this small cage awaiting standard care.  If there was a comparison to slave ships to be made that day, it was between the steady stream of unnecessary deaths in prisons and the routine throwing overboard of enslaved people who were sick, and who therefore would consume food and cost traders a tariff, but would not sell at market.

"This woodcut was originally published in The Liberator, the American abolitionist newspaper, 7 January 1832 (vol. 11, p. 2) to accompany a brief article on Brazil. The article describes how sickly enslaved Africans were thrown overboard alive in the port of Rio so that slave captains, knowing they could not be sold, would avoid paying import duties on them."

But let’s return to Heller’s blog post. Heller wasn’t only comparing the physical discomfort of air travel to the middle passage. He writes a design blog, after all, and was placing the notorious slave ship plans next to seating plans for airliners.

Ever notice how similar the seating plans of airplanes resemble the more horrific layout (yet efficient design of those slave ships)?

There’s a certain banal horror to the interest Heller takes in the “efficiency” of these designs, but yes, there are certain visual similarities. The ship and the plane are both oblong vessels with rounded ends, and when abstracted as schematics bear some visual resemblance.

The slave ship and the airliner juxtaposed from Heller's blog.

Heller wants to make the comparison on the idea that both plans are about fitting the most bodies within a vessel as possible, but where he really comes up short is when he finally wants to posit a difference.

It was prudent that the airplane designers to use chair icons instead of people icons, no?

What Heller can’t recognize is that in the minds of slave ship designers, and in the legal and commercial environments in which they worked, there was no difference between enslaved people and chairs. The slave ship and the middle passage translated the bodies represented in the  schematic into cargo: chattel, things. When Harriet Beecher Stowe first published Uncle Tom’s Cabin serially in The National Era, the novel’s subtitle was, “Or the Man Who Was A Thing.” That efficiency of design that Heller so admires owes to the purported thingly character of the bodies being organized under deck. Heller doesn’t seem to know much about slave ships, about how the violence and terror of the middle passage produced race-based servitude, or about the legal discourses of slavery in the Americas, and because of that, he is eager to compare his own body to the body of the enslaved. He doesn’t understand what things were happening to that body, both physically in that confined space and in the Atlantic world’s material and symbolic economies.

Sometimes, to some people, a body and a chair look alike. And that’s the curious similarity.

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One Response to The Middle Seat is not the Middle Passage.

  1. Kirsten Silva Gruesz says:

    Wonderful post, Jonathan. In the spirit of invidious comparisons, take a look at this sobering x-ray image of Central American and Asian migrants packed into a smuggler’s truck at Mexico’s southern border:

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