“Enslaved Children, ‘Rescue Fantasies,’ and the Problem of ‘Innocence’”
by Dr. Anna Mae Duane
Donald Trump, at some point during his visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, was shown a pair of manacles designed to shackle a child. His quoted response to the horrors conjured by the cruelly shaped metal—“That is really bad”—was roundly criticized as insufficient. Which, of course, it was. No response could ever do justice to cosmology of suffering symbolized by that one set of chains. But much of the outcry over Trump’s laconic reaction derived from the fact that these were handcuffs designed for a child’s hands. The implication was that these small manacles elicited an exceptional form of atrocity, beggaring belief at the United States’s past cruelty in a way that adult-sized manacles would not.
The impulse to show Trump the child’s shackles, and the attention paid to his reaction to them, reveals how profoundly the prospect of child slaves robs us of the capacity to respond appropriately. The abuse and cruelty that accompanies slavery seems particularly excruciating when brought to bear on children, who we have long held up as innocent beings deserving of every possible protection. Perhaps this is why, when we teach the history of slavery, we have focused almost exclusively on adults, even when so many of the narratives written by self-identified enslaved people place their childhood front and center, and even when statistics from before and after legal emancipation tell us that children comprise a large part of enslaved and trafficked populations.
In truth, children pose profound problems for many of us who wish to avoid infantilizing trafficked people. Overwhelmingly, scholars and policy makers seek to facilitate the agency of exploited people. We promote grass-roots labor organizing over top-down interventions, for example. Universities have long trained us to be wary of the sentimental arguments, often featuring children, that render slavery a problem that can be solved by a weeping, well-intentioned white savior. Critics rightly point out that many awareness-raising campaigns featuring children actually harm children and adults both. By making children a particular sort of victim—an exception that needs to be rescued, rather than part of a systemic problem—campaigns can inadvertently take attention away from larger injustices.
Yet the scholarly aversion to infantilization, to sentimentality, and to the fantasies of rescue that such tactics enable, also takes a toll. By focusing too intently on agency and autonomy, lawmakers and policymakers risk doing inadvertent harm of their own. When Enlightenment theorists like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau made adult reason the prerequisite for consent, and by extent the capacity to make meaningful contracts as rights-bearing individuals, they excluded those who allegedly fell short of this idea of autonomous maturity. We’ve done important work dismantling the ways in which infantilization disempowers those who are capable of autonomy. But we have much more work to do to think about facilitating the liberty and dignity of those who through age, disability, or some combination of both, may not be able to inhabit the cherished ideal of the autonomous citizen, the labor organizer, or the resistance leader.
In short, children are ill-served by those on the right who are want to preserve their “innocence” by protective measures that often deny them any agency to weigh in on their fates. Children are also ill-served by left-leaning critics whose aversion to rescue fantasies make it easier to avoid children whose circumstances don’t allow them to access the sort of agency that would enable them to act as the empowered political subjects we’ve been taught to celebrate. As I know from my own work, scholars in the field of childhood studies have long been wrestling with how to negotiate the tensions between “book children” (who are, unabashedly, the fictional fantasies of what adults want children to be) and “real children” who, particularly in the Global South, are living realities far removed from Victorian fables about innocent angels. Nowhere is this disjunction between the stories we tell (or disdain to hear) about children and the lives of actual children more acute than in historical and contemporary slavery studies.
So, having wrestled with the problem a bit on my own, I drew on the expertise of others to try to re-center the child who has been eclipsed by her unlucky location in the middle of these two warring approaches to slavery and trafficking. I set out to ask practitioners and scholars across several disciplines how we might change our thinking about what children are, what they need, and why we are so attached to creating a distinction between them and us. The result of that years-long conversation, Child Slavery Before and After Emancipation: An Argument for Child-Centered Slavery Studies brings together several case studies that each feature different examples of “child slaves,” including child soldiers, incarcerated children in the U.S, and child domestic workers abroad. These studies cover a wide swath of time and space: our essays range from eighteenth-century England to the nineteenth-century U.S., to colonial Africa to our current moment. Collectively, we don’t offer a single answer to the problems—ideological, practical, legal—children pose. Hell, we don’t even offer a single answer to the question about whether we should be referring to these children as “slaves” in the first place. Rather, this book intensifies the debate by amplifying the voices and experiences of children, and by calling into question our own scholarly attachments to the very attributes—strength, reason, autonomy—that renders trafficked and enslaved children the exception, when in fact, they are much closer to the rule.
Anna Mae Duane is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, an editor at www.Common-place.org, and an expert in childhood studies and 19th century US literature. You can follow her blog at https://annamaeduane.com/