In this guest post, Edward Rugemer, associate professor of African American Studies and History at Yale University, shares some of the methods he has used in the classroom to connect slavery then to slavery now. An earlier version of this essay was delivered at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic in St. Louis, Missouri.
I have been teaching the history of slavery and antislavery for six years and for the past two years I have been working to link the history in which I’ve been trained to the problem of slavery today. When I began this endeavor, one of my principal concerns was to replace the historical narrative of slavery and abolition that ended in the nineteenth century with one that did not end at all, a narrative that could explain the persistence of slavery into the twenty-first century.
For historians of the early American republic, I think the most important place to begin is to stop teaching the American Civil War as the war that ended slavery. We still need to tell the stories about the experience of slavery, about the political struggles over the future of slavery, and about wartime emancipation—but we also need to explain how slavery reappeared in different forms in later decades.
My solution to this problem has been to emphasize the “except clause” in the 13th amendment that allowed slavery or involuntary servitude for prisoners convicted of a crime. I’ve assigned David Oshinsky’s Worse than Slavery to show how this clause enabled the convict leasing and the emergence of Parchman Farm on the Mississippi Delta. Both systems allowed the descendants of slave holders to use the law to incarcerate black laborers and then force them to pick cotton. The dramatic constitutional changes wrought by the Civil War did not protect the liberty of these men and women. The prisoners incarcerated in these penal systems suffered a bondage that was quite similar to the slavery of their parents, and similar again to what enslaved people experience today.
So what explains this? As the abolitionist Wendell Phillips pointed out in 1868: “We have abolished the slave, but the master is still with us.” What Phillips meant, I think, is that the motives that drive slaveholders can never be abolished. In my view these motives are principally economic.
In order to link the past and the present I emphasize the economic dimensions of slavery from the very first lecture. Beginning with the earliest American colonial societies Europeans enslaved because they wanted to increase their economic productivity. Throughout the eighteenth and for much of the nineteenth centuries, colonial, state, and federal legislatures codified a racial slavery that was embedded in a capitalist economy that linked together disparate regions of the world. Over the course of about a century beginning in the 1770s, slave rebels and antislavery activists undermined the legitimacy of racial slavery. And now slavery is illegal everywhere.
But the capitalist economy remains and at the heart of this economy is the profit motive. There is nothing fundamentally immoral in the profit motive. But in today’s world as in centuries past there were and are men and women perfectly willing to violate human dignity in order to bolster profits. I have also used Adam Hochshild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, to bridge the narrative from the nineteenth century to today, and with all of the essential themes: a period of globalization, forced labor, empire, and a commodity driven by insatiable consumer demand.
Like “the master,” the consumer also remains after slavery is abolished. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the novelty and convenience of sugar, tobacco, coffee, and cotton thrilled the growing middle classes. Until the abolitionists, most consumers of these slave-grown products did not reflect on the labor that went into these commodities of the modern world.
The commodities are different today, but the process is similar. We are thrilled by the smart phone, cheap clothing, cheap produce, hand woven carpets, and chocolate bars. Not all of these goods are made by slaves. But in the vast supply chains that make up modern industrial production, there are people enslaved in the production of these goods and many others.
In the nineteenth century antislavery women and men abstained from slave-grown products. Today, modern abolitionists have created a website which will allow you and your students to find an approximation of how many slaves work for you. And by reframing our teaching of the history of slavery to include the present day, we can contribute to present day abolitionism, and someday eradicate slavery.