Where do discussions about past and present struggles against slavery and human trafficking have the greatest impact? Many Americans are unaware of modern-day slavery and the abolitionist movement that has emerged to fight it. How, then, do we raise both public awareness and historical consciousness of contemporary slavery?
Walking into the momentous and awe-inspiring National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on the first day of the inaugural Historians Against Slavery Conference, the answer seemed so clear to me: it must be in public spaces like this one where the discussion starts, continues, and bears results. The Freedom Center is not a museum in the traditional sense, according to Luke Blocher, Director of National Strategic Initiatives. Its label as a center goes beyond the display and analysis of objects to inspire people into action.
Indeed, Blocher titled his conference discussion “Public History and Museums of Conscience as Drivers of Abolitionist Engagement,” a pretty hefty task for any organization. Blocher knows this, asking how the Freedom Center might attract more people, tell a bigger story, prompt more discussion. Participants had great input, particularly in how to use the physical space between the Freedom Center’s historical and modern-day exhibits to bridge past and preset slaveries for the public. This space should display the macro and micro next to one another, introducing the complex structural forces that underlay the existence and perpetuation of slavery alongside the individual stories that bring history to life and the present to light.
How do we represent personal stories of oppression and deprivation that still underscore the role of capitalism and patriarchy in fueling slavery? How do we inform people not only of the presence of slavery in the past and present, but of nearly every American’s participation in it through consumerism?
It’s not about condemnation; it’s about opening people’s eyes and advocating action. Yet this balance is such a delicate one, for we don’t want to intimidate or criticize our audience before they have a chance to contribute their own voices. And places like the Freedom Center are aware of this, constantly contemplating how they can attract visitors, educate the public, and promote activism. It’s in publicly “owned” spaces where all are welcome that we’re going start real, far-reaching discussions on slavery and freedom.
We have precedent for believing in this theory—that’s the useful thing about being historians against slavery. Nineteenth-century abolitionists used public spaces and events like churches, festivals, and conferences to instigate conversation and change. They also utilized the latest technology, especially within the burgeoning print culture, to disperse anti-slavery materials to wider audiences. The public commons, nineteenth-century abolitionists knew, was not only physical but also printed. Making use of public space, which now includes the digital commons, is an abolitionist tradition we must continue if we hope to build an anti-slavery movement that is, as Blocher put it, “people working as individuals in a network of freedom.”
I haven’t come to a conclusion on how we can work with and within public history centers, museums, and digital platforms to best address the difficulties noted here. Throughout the next few months, I’m going to visit physical and online exhibits on historical slavery and contemporary human trafficking, and I’ll relate what I find here. Let’s start a discussion in this digital commons, another publicly “owned” space where all are welcome, about how to educate and energize each other. We may not come up with the solutions, but as HAS Co-Director Randall Miller emphasized at the conclusion of the first HAS conference, the questions are as important in fueling activism as the answers are.
So let’s start with some questions: have you visited a physical or digital exhibit that examines and analyzes past and present slaveries? What did you find?