Protests surrounding the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases have continued to dominate the news headlines since our last update. Historians have weighed in with a number of essays connecting the nation’s slaveholding past to our present condition. Historian Heather Thompson wrote about the history of white privilege and black despair in light of the Ferguson case, and Erica Armstrong Dunbar wrote about echoes of the slavery era in reactions to Ferguson. "As we’ve seen in Ferguson," said John Matteson, "the Dred Scott decision lives on."
Author and historian Anne Farrow likewise argued that:
If, as a country, we truly understood the extraordinary human catastrophe we created when we became economically dependent on the oppression of black people, if we took this in all its terrible dimensions into our hearts and then our history, we would not be scratching our heads over Ferguson.
In the American Prospect, historians Daina Ramey Berry and Jennifer Morgan also discussed "slavery’s lasting legacy," even as the sesquicentennial of the Thirteenth Amendment approaches, while another study found that "income inequality in the present day is strongly correlated with the share of slaves in the population back in 1860."
HAS Board Member Caleb McDaniel linked the overpolicing that led to Eric Garner’s death to Reconstruction, and Shana Redmond argued that contempoary police "tactics are reminiscent of the Black Codes" from that same era. (By the way, for more on Reconstruction, read the recent survey of the period by HAS supporter Doug Egerton, whose book was named by the Atlantic as one of the best of the year.)
All of these articles suggest that one of the main things people can and should do after the Ferguson Decision, as Dr. David Leonard argued, is to "know history." Historians have also begun to examine how the history of antislavery protests inform and provide precedents for the protest movements taking shape in the aftermath of #BlackLivesMatter. Joshua Rothman, for example, examines how both abolitionists and "I Can’t Breathe" protestors use fashion to share their politics.
Several new blogs focused on scholarly conversations about contemporary events have launched this year. JSTOR Daily, for example, published links to scholarship on mass incarceration and the history of modern slavery. (A recent article in the Atlantic reported that "rates of incarceration in America’s poorest, blackest, & brownest neighborhoods are historically unprecedented.") And at The Conversation, a new blog that brings scholarship to wider audiences, historian Daina Ramey Berry tackled four myths about slavery.
The new blog End Slavery Now, from our partners at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, has published many great posts since its launch, including two on victim-centered definitions of slavery and the historical continuum between slavery and freedom. Luke Blocher discussed differences between past battles against slavery and today’s struggle, while John E. Pepper published a powerful post about how he, as a business leader, became involved in the struggle against human trafficking.
The scale of that struggle, and the dilemmas it creates for activists, can be seen in several other reports about modern-day forced labor, trafficking, and slavery:
- A report by Marques Casara and Sergio Vignes about slave labor in the Brazilian Amazon
- A BBC report on the "sad plight of UK slavery victims"
- A story from the Telegraph about reports of human trafficking victims being "tattooed" to "signify ownership"
- A report from the Urban Institute on labor trafficking
- A post about slave laborers in the computer industry
- An essay about the growing role of trafficking in terrorism
- An investigation of farm laborers in the Los Angeles Times
- An infographic on the business of modern-day slavery
- A new estimate from the Walk Free Foundation puts the number of modern slaves worldwide at more than 35 million people
Such reports have not appeared without criticism, however, including from historians and scholars. In the Guardian, Anne Gallagher offered a critique of the Walk Free figures, and historian . Jessica Pilley interrogated the disproporationate focus on sex trafficking in Congress when slavery comes up. Finally, a new website brings together scholars and journalists to offer critical takes on sensationalistic media reports about slavery and trafficking, and prompts reflection about whether "the ‘protection’ policies that governments put in place often do more harm than good." An end-of-year report offers a good introduction to the blog.
Meanwhile, reports of campus activism on trafficking and modern slavery have continued to appear since our last Around the Web. Robert L. Benz wrote for the Huffington Post on the Globalize 13 curriculum, and a senior at Adrian College led a national workshop on human trafficking. For more on the work Historians Against Slavery is doing on college campuses, revisit Stacey Robertson’s post or The Free Project website, which includes a new resources page.
See anything important we missed in 2014! Let us know about it! And look forward to new posts on this blog in the new year.