The HAS Blog will regularly feature links to recent items from around the web that connect the struggle against slavery in the past with the present.
Our inaugural edition begins with an article at History News Network by Brenda E. Stevenson, Professor of History at UCLA. In “What the History of Slavery Can Teach Us About Slavery Today,” Stevenson argues that slavery persists partly because of a too-general acceptance of extreme poverty. She writes:
Slavery fuels a mythology of privilege that provides a justification for those who have at the expense of those who are the have nots. Slavery exists today, as it has across time and place, because we have been socialized to expect some people to live on the margins of our society. Unfortunately, those margins consistently become manacles that tie us to past horrors and link future generations to discrimination and inequality.
Brazen defenses of slavery may be rarer today than they were in the nineteenth century, but Professor Stevenson notes that those charged with trafficking or enslavement often rely on very old defenses of their behavior.
In the nineteenth century, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison often published proslavery defenses or arguments in a front-page department of The Liberator that he called the “Refuge of Oppression.” Last month, several historians were astonished to see an article published in a local edition of the International Herald Trine that Garrison might well have published under that heading. In “Modern Slavery, How Bad is Bonded Labour?,” a Cambridge-trained economist argues that modern bondage is not so bad!
In reply, historian of slavery Dael Norwood, who is currently a Cassius Marcellus Clay Fellow in the Department of History at Yale University, published an outstanding critique of the article, which notes that the author’s underlying premise conflates “contract” with “freedom” in a way that rarely makes sense in practice. As Norwood writes:
whatever you call it, bonded labor is bondage. It’s slavery. That was true in 1859, and it’s true now, whatever ahistorical argument a Cambridge Econ PhD makes. But for a better approach to the problem of poverty and slavery in the contemporary world, one that’s actually historically informed, why don’t you take a look at what the Historians Against Slavery have been up to?
Thanks to Dael for the shout-out, and also to The Junto for circulating the piece. We appreciate these historians’ efforts to use their expertise in history to make slavery history.