“Interdisciplinary Abolitionism and the Contemporary University: An Experiment,”
by David C. Williard
“I don’t see what Thai sex slavery has to do with African American emancipation,” a valued but blunt colleague said to me as we discussed how to bring the work of Historians Against Slavery and, ultimately, the Free Project to our campus at the University of St. Thomas. His words were not dismissive, but rather curious—could we connect the two problems he named and the many other forms of human enslavement that shape our contemporary world into a single project? As we put together our preliminary agenda at our first official Free Project meeting in August 2015, one of our student members expressed a similar concern. If we talk about American prisoners, mass incarceration, and the legacies of a long, incomplete emancipation in the United States in same vein as people enslaved by human traffickers as prostitutes, miners, fishermen, chocolate and coffee harvesters, and garment workers across the globe, she asked, are we trying to do too much? Is an appraisal of slavery that joins the legacies of the Atlantic slave trade that ended in the nineteenth century and the ongoing practice of human bondage in the twenty-first possible? Is it useful?
At the University of St. Thomas, we believe that such an approach is not just possible, but essential. Our chapter of the Free Project, a collaboration of students, faculty members, and community partners that filed its charter this semester, is organized around an interdisciplinary critique that asks how slavery’s persistent impacts shape the meaning of contemporary citizenship. In our recent launch event on November 19, titled “Is Slavery Dead?” our student and faculty presenters engaged topics typically associated with “modern slavery,” such as the imperiled circumstances of debt-bonded garment workers in South Asia and the representational aesthetics of trafficked sex slaves in Thailand. We also investigated questions that many modern abolitionists do not touch: mass incarceration and drug sentencing in American prisons, the vulnerability of the bodies of slavery’s descendants to horrific punishment in Brazil, and the 2011 destruction of a Missouri community founded in the 1930s by the descendants of slaves on the only land they could purchase.
While most public discourse separates the “new” slavery of global exploitation (new only in relation to its “discovery” by the West) from the legacies of the “old” slavery practiced on the survivors of the transatlantic slave trade and their descendants, such a separation has both moral and interpretive limitations. For American audiences, focusing on the “new” without reference to the “old” is simply too facile: it promises immediate, delineated solutions to concrete problems that seem easy to name and identify—and that either take place far away or in marginal spaces, outside of the purview of mainstream society. To be sure, we need to know where and how slavery continues to be practiced even as nearly every nation in the world declares it to be illegal. We want to learn how to engage in responsible activism as voters, consumers, and citizens to change what can be changed and to aid, wherever possible, in the immediate work of abolition and emancipation. But we have an equal obligation to know that slavery’s effects do not limit themselves to practices outside the bounds of the law, that they cannot be easily remedied, and that people denied fundamental human freedoms are not exotic “others” in need of uplift but rather part of the very fabric through which we create the ideology and practice of our own understandings of freedom.
Our ultimate goal is to change how we (and those around us) see the question of slavery itself by placing the “strange” aspects of contemporary global slavery in conversation with the “familiar” consequences of America’s long struggle for abolition and emancipation. We want to show, as one of our colleagues in theology has done so brilliantly, how young women bought and sold for sex in Chiang Mai, Thailand are not distant or exotic—they belong within the same global human community that we, as university students and faculty, do, and their humanity and ours depend upon each other. At the same time, we want to shine a critical light on the historical origins and persistent impacts of economic and political practices in our own communities that many of us accept as routine. If we see slavery as an aberration, confined to other times and other regions and practiced outside of our familiar sociopolitical climate, we rest easy in our distance from it. If instead we recognize that emancipation’s work is ongoing and that obstacles to its completion have persisted and even grown in the very sociopolitical climate we consider antithetical to slavery, then human unfreedom emerges as an intolerable indictment to our highest hopes as a society.
As a scholar of the Civil War era, that approach seems historically honest to me. It draws on antebellum abolitionist critiques that challenged free northerners physically distant from the auction blocks and plantations of the South to see both their own complicity in perpetuating a slave economy and the moral blight that human bondage posed to a democratic society. It also reflects the painful lessons of America’s long and incomplete post-emancipation reconstruction. Slavery’s legal sanction may have dwindled with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, but manipulation of the law, the weakness of capacity and eventually of will of the postwar central government, and a woefully inadequate provision for former slaves’ economic futures allowed both individuals and states to mitigate the meaning of freedom. But as my colleagues and our students have shown, this is not only a problem for historians: it raises immediate and pressing questions for those who work in the disciplines of cultural studies, the law, philosophy, sociology, theology, and women’s studies, among many others. It is, then, precisely the kind of pressing challenge that the modern university should bring its interdisciplinary resources to bear upon.
At St. Thomas, our hope is to use the resources around us—our campus research funds, our classrooms and independent study opportunities, and our ability to partner with community organizations as part of our university’s new emphasis on service learning—to show the varied and pervasive effects that denial of citizenship’s protections and indifference to human dignity have on our world. If we see the variations and degrees to which Americans, as members of a society that prides itself on its commitment to free citizenship, tolerate social structures in which persons’ roles in the world depend on their inability to claim the protections and privileges through which we define our own lives, then we can begin to see that our understanding of our own freedom and the practice of modern slavery cannot coexist.
David C. Williard is Assistant Professor of History at the University of St. Thomas. His teaching and research areas include the Civil War era, Reconstruction, 19th century U.S., the U.S. south, African-American History, and U.S. military history.