Your "Around the Web" reporter has neglected his duties here for the last couple of weeks while visiting the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance & Abolition at Yale University. There I had the privilege of attending the Center’s Fifteenth Annual International Conference, which focused this year on Indigenous Enslavement and Incarceration in North American History.
The conference provided a feast of food for thought, both for historians and for activists. It ended with a reminder from Professor Tsianina Lomawaima that most of us got into scholarship because we had been “hooked through the heart,” and an admonition from MacArthur Foundation Fellow Tiya Miles to remember that spaces of confinement and enslavement can take many different shapes: plantations, boarding schools, jails, reservations, and even homes. Once we have trained our hearts and heads to see the diverse forms that exploitation can take, she suggested, we’ll be better prepared to see them in the present, too. And as Professor Miles noted on Twitter today, we usually don’t have to look very far:
— Tiya Miles (@TiyaMilesUM) November 22, 2013
Indeed, the news has been filled lately with evidence that, as Nicholas Kristof put it in a recent op-ed, slavery isn’t a thing of the past. For three London women, enslavement took the form of a thirty-year nightmare of confinement and abuse. In Mauritania, antislavery activists continue to fight practices that the government calls "vestiges" of slavery but which abolitionists there recognize as slavery itself. And in the United States, too, there are still far too many "liminal, transient workers" who suffer exploitation out of sight and out of mind until disasters like Hurricane Sandy bring them out of the shadows.
While antislavery activists and workers’ advocates confront injustices in the present, historian Laurent DuBois reminds us that many nations in the Caribbean are still struggling to confront the legacies of slavery in the past. The ongoing and wide-ranging discussion of the movie 12 Years a Slave has also led many to note that Americans have not yet fully confronted the slavery in their own past. "We love being the country that freed the slaves," said Yale historian David Blight, the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center, on a recent episode of Fresh Air. But "we’re not so fond of being the country that had the biggest slave system on the planet." Perhaps that is one reason why, as James DeWolf Perry writes on the Tracing Center’s website, it is so challenging to see our present society for what it is. Paul Gilroy, Wesley Morris, and a panel of historians on the Diane Rehm Show all express hope that Steve McQueen’s movie about Solomon Northup will, in refusing to let us forget, also help us to see better where we are now.
That same hope animated another conference that happened this month at the University of Michigan on history, human rights, and contemporary slavery from the vantage point of Brazil. Check out the excellent set of resources on the legal definition of contemporary slavery linked from the conference website, and while you’re thinking about Brazil, don’t miss Ana Lucia Araujo’s excellent essay, "Transnational Memory of Slave Merchants: Making the Perpetrators Visible in the Public Space."
After completing all of this sobering reading, you may, like me, begin to wonder what historians—or anyone—can do to draw attention to the issues they uncover in our distracted new media age. If so, perhaps some inspiration can be found in what one local historical society recently did to raise $16,000 and garner the attention of 5.2 million denizens of the Web. Clearly, abolitionists from the past have the power even now to fire the imagination and build momentum towards a worthy cause; in so many ways, they are speaking to us still.