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Omar, Otherness, and the Minimum Wage

What a New Opera Tells Us About Labor Exploitation In February, Carolina Performing Arts (CPA) at UNC presented the new opera, “Omar” written by Rhiannon Giddens. They co-commissioned the piece with Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC, where it premiered last summer. The opera imagines the life of Omar ibn Said who was kidnapped from what...

What a New Opera Tells Us About Labor Exploitation

In February, Carolina Performing Arts (CPA) at UNC presented the new opera, “Omar” written by Rhiannon Giddens. They co-commissioned the piece with Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC, where it premiered last summer. The opera imagines the life of Omar ibn Said who was kidnapped from what is now Senegal at the age of 37 after years of formal education in Arabic and Quran. Thomas Jefferson had just prohibited the further importation of enslaved people and it’s thought that ibn Said may have come to America in one of the last ships carrying enslaved people to the Americas. He escaped an abusive plantation owner in Charleston, SC but was recaptured in Fayetteville, NC. While jailed, the locals took notice of him because he had covered the walls in Arabic script. Ibn Said was sold to the Owen family, whose prominent members included NC Governor John Owen. Theoretically the Owens gave Omar a kinder experience; however, he continued to be enslaved against his will, prevented from returning to a home he longed for. He died at age 92 just a few years before the Civil War. He was commissioned to write his autobiography as a testament to his Christian conversion (which is contested) in 1831. Not all of that is in the opera, but the details of his life are important.

The opera provides a compelling opportunity to reflect on America’s relationship to the history and current practice of exploitive labor. Omar ibn Said’s story of exploitation connects to our current challenges of America’s expanding wealth gap. While it is not appropriate to compare any contemporary job to the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, it is important that history does not become an abstract concept. We must connect current issues of poverty and exploitive labor to their historic roots.

In collaboration with CPA, MDC facilitated a dialogue between our board member, labor economist, and Howard Professor, Dr. William Spriggs and UNC Islamic Studies professor, Dr. Youssef Carter moderated by MDC Senior Program Director, Kerri Forrest. Some key commentary from our dialogue highlighted that exploitation in the South did not end with the emancipation of enslaved people. According to Dr. Spriggs, it persisted through sharecropping, the emergence of industrial labor, and today’s ever-widening wage inequalities. Modern exploitation exists in America’s persistent failure to require wage levels that provide sufficient well-being for workers and their families, while the top earners in our economic system gain an increasing share of the system’s wealth. For comparison, a McDonald’s worker in the 1950’s earned the equivalent of $15/hour in today’s dollars, a wage that has only recently begun to reach parts of the American service sector.

Dr. Spriggs emphasized that enslavers and plantation owners did not see the humanity in the people they enslaved. More generally, “constructs are erected to ‘other’ one as property. This othering says ‘I’m still a good guy’” and builds social norms that reinforce and protect economic exploitation. It relies on not seeing workers as capable of feeling pain and suffering. The fallacy of the “kind slave master narrative” maintains that the person or industry exploiting labor can maintain a positive self-image despite their inhumane treatment of workers. In Omar’s case, his education and literacy triggered his enslavers’ cognitive dissonance, leading them to bestow special treatment.

Dr. Spriggs highlighted not only the minimum wage, but recent congressional arguments that SNAP benefits require families to work for eligibility. If wages were equitable, workers would not need SNAP. Denying the benefit relies on denying recipients’ humanity and intrinsic value.

It does not have to be this way…

An  analysis from EPI on the growing gap between American worker productivity and typical worker pay demonstrate that the federal minimum wage would be over $18 an hour if wages had kept pace with productivity. The MIT Living Wage Calculator for an individual with no children in Durham County, North Carolina is $18.40 and with just one child, it increases to $39.21. According to a Pew Research Study, over one hundred and fifteen countries set their minimum wage by some sort regulation, law or decree following dialogue and recommendations by a variety of commissions rather than partisan legislation. More than eighty countries review their minimum wage annually or every two years. America’s approach to the minimum wage neglects the workers who drive the economy. It is not workers who should suffer the cost in the delay to pace wages with economic growth.

According to Dr. Spriggs, increasing the minimum wage benefits everyone by creating additional consumers who will circulate back into the economy. When I asked whether small businesses would need subsidies to support the interim while the economy caught up, he suggested the growth would be immediate.

A quote from Dr. Carter has continued to resonate: “…the Mason Dixon Line is the Canadian border.” Slavery is not only the South’s original sin; it is America’s. The entire country was built on and continues to benefit from the exploitation of labor. We must actively grapple with why we normalized this for an economy of convenience where getting cheap stuff quickly is valued higher than valuing workers and preventing poverty. What groups of people do we continue to other to justify the denial of living wages, health benefits, housing, and basic human needs that should be unalienable rights? What would our country look like if our economic policies and labor practices valued workers’ humanity and contributions?  What could families achieve with a reasonable living wage? If we are to imagine a South and an America where all people thrive, it will rely on creating an economy rooted in equitable wages. We believe the results will benefit everyone in the long-run.

UNC’s Wilson Library includes several of Omar ibn Said’s original manuscripts. Additionally, a new translation of Omar ibn Said’s autobiography with academic commentary written by Mbaye Lo and Carl Ernst will be published this fall.

Dr. William Spriggs passed away on June 6, 2023. He was an important leader for MDC and the work to envision economic systems that center equity and value workers’ rights. He served as a professor and former chair of the Department of Economics at Howard University, chief economist to the AFL-CIO, and an Obama appointee as assistant secretary for the Office of Policy at the Department of Labor amongst other important appointments. MDC is dedicated to carrying his vision forward by creating a South where everyone may thrive.

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