Around the Web—your survey of recent articles on slavery, past and present—is back after a long hiatus. We have lots of catching up to do!
At the time of our last posting, 12 Years a Slave was garnering critical praise from around the world. Since then, the film has won the Oscar for best picture, and director Steve McQueen has become a global advocate for the abolition of modern-day slavery. See his column on the 175th anniversary of Anti-Slavery (the organization founded in 1839 as the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society), as well as his speech to the United Nations. The educators in our audience will also be interested to learn that McQueen’s film may soon be coming to a school near you.
More recently, the International Labor Organization released a report on the tremendous profits reaped through modern-day forms of forced labor, sparking a wide range of coverage, including articles in TIME and the Economist.
A recent report from the National Research Council on mass incarceration also spotlighted the continuing legacies of slavery in the American criminal justice system. Drawing on the work of historians like Heather Ann Thompson, who also spoke at a Yale symposium on prison history, the report is one of several recent stories on the problem of mass incarceration that prompted the New York Times to call for its immediate abolition in an editorial spotlighting the influence that scholarship can have on public affairs. See also the interview of Attorney General Eric Holder by our 2013 conference keynote speaker Douglas Blackmon on the steps the Obama administration is willing to take to end mass incarceration. More attention to this subject will doubtless be paid at an upcoming conference at Harvard on the history of penal regimes, and a recent expose on the use of jailed immigrants as cheap labor in Houston prisons suggests that the subject deserves the attention of modern-day abolitionists, too. For more on mass incarceration, see this history of felon disfranchisement and a new study on the disproportionate number of inmates of color in for-profit prisons.
In recent months, the news has been filled with reminders of how diverse modern-day forms of slavery are, as well as controversies about whether some kinds of labor are inappropriately conflated with slavery. An article in Reason argued that undue levels of concern about “sex slavery” are actually fueling the rise of a surveillance state. But the Nation also issued a sharp rebuke to those who underestimate the evils of sex trafficking in an opinion piece asking, Why Do So Many Leftists Want Sex Work to Be the New Normal? (For more on this subject, see a report on the underground sex economy at CNN and a local news report from Houston in which Board Member Caleb McDaniel was also interviewed.)
What is certainly clear, both from reports like the one issued by the ILO and recent news stories, is that modern-day forms of slavery, forced labor, and labor trafficking are not confined to commercial sex. They can be found in migrant camps in Yemen, on American military bases in Afghanistan, in tomato fields, at World Cup infrastructural projects, on fishing ships, in the house down the block, and in the supply chains of everything from video games and tea to soccer jerseys. (For an effective survey of how modern-day slavery insinuates itself into everday consumer products, see this video by the Adrian College student group that spoke at our 2013 conference.)
In view of all of these practices, it’s hard to avoid the question: what can scholars and historians do? They can spotlight the way that slavery has always been entangled with capitalism and the rise of the modern world, whether in writing or in provocative works of art. They can help make modern slavery visible by calling attention to how slow the processes of emancipation have always been. They can protest the use of exploitative labor practices by academic and cultural institutions that support scholars. And they can correct misleading accounts of abolitions in the past that may misinform current policymakers. And they can join together in new interdisciplinary efforts to study the problem of human trafficking.
Perhaps most of all, historians can help make sure that the history and memory of slaveries past are not buried in construction projects or obscured by one-sided memorials. Our contemporaries are unlikely to see modern day forms of forced labor as problems if they do not yet even see past forms of slavery as serious problems whose legacies in societies ranging from the Caribbean to the United States continue today.
The good news, perhaps, for modern-day abolitionists is that “slavery is a non-ideological and non-partisan issue,” as seen in the recent hashtag activism sparked by the kidnapping of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram. “There isn’t a ‘pro-slavery’ argument that rises above the level of the lunatic.” Yet even that “good news” may need to be tempered by the realization that powerful economic interests are still served by the idea that slavery is a “regrettably unavoidable” byproduct of doing business. There is much work, intellectual and otherwise, left to be done.