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comparative slavery

In this guest post, Christopher Olsen, professor and chair in the history department at Indiana State University, shares his experiences with bringing contemporary slavery into the history classroom. Please share your own thoughts in the comments!

Nearly twenty years ago I taught my first course that I called Comparative Slavery. I was a new Ph.D. hired at a small liberal arts school in Virginia; my training was in antebellum U. S. and southern history (my own research is in antebellum politics), but I got the job partly because I had a minor field in Latin America. To impress my new colleagues I thought I should teach a slavery course that was much more Latin America than United States. So I constructed a brutal reading list, and in hindsight I’m surprised anyone survived the whole thing.

But youthful hubris aside, this first attempt taught me that a comparative slavery course could be a great way to discuss contemporary issues like race and identity. In some ways it was my first experience with connecting history to society and culture today, at least in an intentional way; I guess I’d never really thought about it much before it happened sort of accidentally. Although most of the course focused on historical slavery in the Americas, I had the students read Carl Degler and Joel Williamson to discuss some post-emancipation legacies of slavery. And we framed a lot of the discussion in the old Frank Tannenbaum arguments from Slave and Citizen—it was Comparative Slavery, after all. It turned out to be the best week of the class, even though some of the students thought it was only marginally related to slavery.

As we talked about race and the legacies of slavery, one of the students told a great story. She was Hispanic (I don’t remember exactly where she was from, but I think Puerto Rico) but, she thought, with some African American ancestry. The previous year she’d been detained in the local shopping mall by security because she was pushing her infant in a stroller and he had blonde hair and blue eyes–because “that’s how he came out,” as she told us. It was part of a great discussion about social attitudes, prejudice, cultural assumptions, race, and identity—and of course history.

I decided that any course I taught on comparative slavery would need to be more “contemporary,” if only to take advantage of possibilities like that one. I like to think that it was my best “aha” moment as a first-year faculty member—I didn’t have to teach just the old historical “stuff” I was trained to do in grad school.

The current iteration of Comparative Slavery has evolved over the last fifteen years at Indiana State University. When I made the move here (in 1999) and re-created this course, I “discovered” contemporary slavery as an issue (like a lot of people about that time). I was woefully ignorant of slavery in the world today, and so I read Kevin Bales, then Benjamin Skinner, and so forth. I decided this was where I needed to take the course, and I’ve certainly never regretted that. The students still read John Thornton and Herbert Klein, but the course has shifted much more to examine slavery today.

Currently I’m using A Crime So Monstrous, which students seem to like—the combination of first-hand stories and American politics appeals, in some way, to just about everyone. Another change that I made a few years ago was to have students present articles on slavery. So every day we all read at least one additional piece about slavery today—accounts from survivors, government reports, investigative journalism, and so forth. Students find amazing things, and they’re inevitably moved like nothing they get from historical slavery. Frankly this wouldn’t have been possible until recently since there was so little attention paid to slavery in the general public, but now with Free the Slaves, Historians Against Slavery, the CNN Freedom Project, the BBC, and so forth, there is so much good investigative work available to students, and many of the students are at least vaguely aware of it.

It’s the most rewarding class I teach. Students are affected by the stories we read; a lot of them tell me that they finish the class and join Free the Slaves. One of my favorite stories is the police officer from South Florida who took the class online a few years ago. He described to the class (via online chat) that he’d received just a few minutes worth of training on how to recognize people who might be victims of trafficking, but the class changed the way he looked at his job and so many of the people with whom he interacted every day. Other students say the same thing, of course, about migrant farm workers and hotel cleaning crews. I’ve had students visibly unnerved after they take the Slave Footprint survey.

All of the time we spend talking about contemporary slavery, students tell me, enriches their understanding of (and interest in) historical slavery. The modern accounts of today’s victims and rescued men, women, and children give faces to slavery in a way that even autobiographies of nineteenth-century runaway slaves can’t do. Students get a different perspective on the psychological damages of slavery, for instance, when they listen to interviews with young girls trafficked for sex or boys forced to work in the Dominican sugar fields. The most perceptive students then make those connections to the slaves they’ve always read about in textbooks. And we finish the class by discussing the timeless elements of slavery: exploitation, sexual abuse, physical and psychological torture, trafficking and “natal alienation.” This usually generates a great discussion of poverty and capitalism, frequently ending with an uncomfortable realization when students don’t want to blame capitalism and greed for slavery, but of course come to the conclusion that there is no other conclusion. The debate about how to abolish slavery is nearly always interesting.

Teaching this class has been a great experience for me. I doubt that there’s anything very special about how I teach it, but it’s always good to step outside one’s narrow speciality and comfort zone. All academics should do it more often; we’d all learn more.

Image credit: “comparative slavery” CC-BY Photo from Flickr user “alist”

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