Day 20 of the 30 days, 30 words challenge:
her·i·ot \ˈher-ē-ət\ n : a feudal duty or tribute due under English law to a lord on the death of a tenant.
Today, we have a word I’ve never heard of. I found the definition a bit unclear so I went to the dictionary’s wise aunt, the encyclopedia. Here’s what Britannica has to say about:
heriot, in European feudal society, the right of the lord to seize his tenant’s best beast or other chattel on the tenant’s death. The right grew out of the custom under which the lord lent horses and armour to those of his tenants who served him in battle. When a tenant died, the horse and equipment were returned to the lord. When the tenant became responsible for providing his own equipment, the lord claimed the right to heriot. There were various types of heriot. Heriot service was an incident of both free and unfree land tenure, i.e., both unfree, or villein, tenants and free tenants were subject to the feudal lord’s right of heriot. A tenant could make provision for the payment of heriot in his will, but if he died in battle no heriot was required.
Fucked up, right? To break this down: the lord makes his tenant serve him in battle, and because the lord has to loan him armor (because the tenant is poor and cannot afford it) to fight in the lord’s battles, when the tenant dies, the lord can take—from the tenant’s poor and struggling family—either the armor or the most expensive possession they have.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how often some humans decide they are better than other humans—and the manifold ways this has displayed itself over time and continues to display itself. I love this incredibly smart and funny new web series on Youtube called Ask a Slave. Creator and actress Azie Mira Dungey plays the role of George and Martha Washington’s slave on the show, answering emailed and phone-in questions. Questions like: “What’s your favorite part of the plantation?” and “Why don’t you just go to school in Massachusetts” and “What if you are asleep and Mrs. Washington wants a cup of tea in the middle of the night?” Or there’s: “How did you get to be maid for such a distinguished founding father? Did you read the advertisement in the newspaper?” To this, Dungey’s character Lizzie Mae replies, “Why yes. It said, ‘One housemaid. No pay. Preferably mulatto. Saucy with breeding hips.” The thing about the questions is that these were real questions asked by real visitors of George Washington’s Mount Vernon where she worked as a living character.
And this came through my newsfeed yesterday: “Parents Complain After Child Forced to Reenact Slavery on a Field Trip.” During a school field trip organized by a group called Nature’s Classroom, a 12-year-old black girl was “called the N-word, chased through the woods, and threatened with physical violence including whipping and cutting her Achilles” as part of a historical reenactment of slavery she was made to participate in. Apparently, this “enactment” is something the group Nature’s Classroom has done in the past. And previous participants described “being similarly horrified by the experience.” The school did not and has not apologized.
In this country, we pretend we are so high above this kind of thing: one group discriminated against, one to be made better than another. We ignore history. We deny systems of privilege and pretend that everyone gets a fair shake. But the ways in which we value some people’s lives over others is visible everywhere. Yesterday, House Republications pushed through a bill that will cut food stamps by 40 billion dollars. There are 47 billion Americans currently enrolled in SNAP. We act as if hunger is some distant foreign thing, happening far away on another continent. But according to Feeding America, “In 2011, 50.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 33.5 million adults and 16.7 million children.” That’s one in six Americans. This is something that will only become worse when programs like SNAP are cut.
This week this article and this graph have been circulating; both discuss adjunct college instructors. Current estimates say 70 percent of all instructional faculty at colleges and universities are made up of non-tenure-track full or part-time instructor; a study just found that students learn more from adjuncts than their tenure track professors. In our country, the rhetoric is strong about the importance of education and the goal of sending each child to college. Tuition costs continue to rise, but adjunct pay does not and many adjuncts do not have access to healthcare. As tuition rises, how much (how little) of it is going to the folks who are actually teaching? We say that teaching is the most venerable profession and that we care about education above all else, but we don’t pay our teachers enough to sustain themselves. And how can we truly claim to care about education if we don’t adequately compensate our educators.
These things—and so many more—are our modern feudal system. In this system, those who are wealthy with money and privilege have all the power and those who don’t have wealth have to struggle to get by and become more and more indebted to those in power.