Why does Clay Purvis become so upset when Jessie shows concern for the kidnapped Africans in Slave Dancer?

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dymatsuoka | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Clay Purvis becomes upset when Jessie shows concern for the kidnapped Africans because he feels that his own ancestors' suffering is demeaned by Jessie's attitude.  Although he is hard-working and a basically good man, Purvis is a man of his time.  He looks upon the slaves as being less than human, and justifies the slave trade in pragmatic terms.  Purvis has no sympathy for the human beings in whose trafficking he takes part, pointing out that "the native chiefs are so greedy for (American) trade goods" that they willingly sell their own people, even "cheaper than they ever did to tempt (the Americans) to run the British blockade" after the British outlawed the slave trade in their own country ("The Moonlight").

When Jessie shows concern for the kidnapped Africans, Purvis responds with ire, telling him

"Do you think it was easier for my own people who sailed to Boston sixty years ago from Ireland, locked up in a hold for the whole voyage where they might have died of sickness and suffocation?  Do you know my father was haunted all his days by the memory of those who died before his eyes in that ship, and were flung into the sea?  And you dare speak of my parents in the same breath with these niggers!"

With his twisted logic, Purvis, who believes that he and his ancestors are ever so much better than the black men, women, and children he is helping to sell into cruel bondage, is insulted that Jessie should have sympathy for the slaves when his own people suffered in like manner.  Jessie at first argues that he is not making any comparisons, and that besides, the Irish were "not sold on the block", but Purvis "rave(s) on", and ends the conversation by delivering to the young boy "a kick on (his) shin" ("The Bight of Benin").

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