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“Thoughts on Teaching: Why Modern Slavery Belongs in a History of Slavery”

By Dr. Sara Lampert, University of South Dakota

It was drizzling, threatening to rain, but that stopped no one. Students streamed across the quad to the coyote statue, the universal meeting point outside the student center. They collected their little bags of red sand and reversed their steps, spreading along the walkways to pour the red sand into the cracks, signifying the 45.8 million trafficking victims worldwide whose lives we cannot simple ignore as they fall through the cracks.

Students from the Human Trafficking class taught by my colleague Dr. Bridget Diamond-Welch had brought the Red Sand Project to our campus at the University of South Dakota as part of a public engagement assignment. The participants in the Red Sand Project that day included curious passersby but mostly students from classes engaged with social justice topics. The students in my U.S. slavery class clustered together listening as an impassioned senior psychology major delivered sobering statistics and talked trafficking myths and risk factors. Then we shuffled back across the quad, through the maze of red sand, to resume our class discussions about anti-slavery activism on the eve of the Civil War.

This was my second time teaching Race and Slavery in the United States, an upper-level history course I developed, which also serves the Multicultural Studies Minor. The course is dived into four units. We begin with a historical survey covering the history of slavery to the antebellum period, drawing upon David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage. The second unit is a primary source-based exploration of the many facets of slavery: work, family, religion and culture, resistance. The third unit examines the many facets of antislavery activism. Over the term, we watch and analyze contemporary depictions of slavery in relation to course material: Roots (2016), Book of Negroes (2015), Twelve Years a Slave (2013), The Birth of a Nation (2016), and The Abolitionists (2016).

We end the semester with a unit on slavery and memory. This past semester, we watched the web series Ask A Slave considered the challenges of designing effective interactive lesson plans for elementary and middle schools students, and talked about contemporary debates over the removal of Confederate monuments. We considered questions of memory in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and fight against mass incarceration. Students finished the semester by designing an interactive educational experience about slavery. They presented me with middle school unit lesson plans, virtual museum exhibits, podcasts, and interactive websites.

Students wrote on course evaluations that the final project was the most unique and satisfying part of the course, as it made their studies feel relevant in a new way. Several had engaged with friends and even parents at various stages in developing the project, for example asking a roommate to check the navigation of a website, or drawing on a mother’s love of quilting as inspiration for an exhibit on slave culture. It was exciting seeing these projects and read student feedback, to realize that they were already educating their peers and families about what they had learned.

Yet our involvement with the Red Sand Project suggested to me that there were still other important ways we could engage with the contemporary moment in this course. I needed to more effectively connect student interest in the history of slavery to the project of combating modern day slavery.

When we returned to class from the Red Sand Project, we chatted about the meaning and implications of the exercise. It felt both empty and deeply significant. Awareness. What did raising awareness accomplish? We talked about feeling powerless relative to the scale of this problem. As we had come to learn by recent news reports and awareness campaigns from local organizations like Call to Freedom, based out of Sioux Falls, SD, sex trafficking reached into our own backyards with suburban brothels and trafficking networks. We live along the I29 corridor, from Kansas City, MO up to Canada. Like many interstate highways, I29 is a major human trafficking artery. The states’ large Native American population is especially vulnerable, with Native women and girls disproportionately likely to be raped or molested and trafficked. The upcoming 77th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is currently the focus of local task force and organizations like Native Hope, among others, working to eliminate human trafficking at the rally.

So what could we do? Pay attention to legislation, I said. Educate yourself about efforts to combat trafficking at the state and local level. Know the signs of trafficking. Support local organizations working toward prevention and the rehabilitation of trafficking victims.

I asked my students to think about the symbolism of the sand in the cracks. This was an installation about seeing, remembering, calling up unknown and unknowable lives. We connected this back to antebellum abolitionism, which I reminded them was a half-century struggle. Much like anti-trafficking efforts today, it was the men and women who stole themselves to freedom and those who aided them who led the fight and shaped its strategies.

Our day on the quad with our red bags of sand suggested the potential of using my class on the history of racially-based chattel slavery to begin a conversation about the evolving contours of bonded labor in the age of global capitalism. This conversation leads many of us to look in our own backyards.

Incorporating focus on modern day forms of slavery into a history of U.S. slavery course is a ripe opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration across campus. My interest in trafficking was stimulated by my colleague Dr. Diamond-Welch, assistant professor of Criminal Justice, who is researching and trying to raise awareness about the problem here in the Midwest. I encouraged students from my slavery class, many of them history majors, to follow their questions into the Human Trafficking class, meanwhile I dream of developing a team-taught course bringing together the historical and contemporary.

I hope the skills these students learned last semester working with The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, teasing out negotiations of power in WPA interviews, analyzing the narrative strategies in slave narratives can be useful to them as they think about how to connect with the numbers, the experiences, and the representations of slavery today. I hope they continue to think not only about the power structures and institutions and ideologies that produced five hundred years of slavery in the Americas, but also about the structures and institutions and ideology that continue the traffic in and bondage of women, men, and children today.


Dr. Sara Lampert is an assistant professor of history at the University of South Dakota.  Dr. Lampert is working on her manuscript, “Wild to See Her: Female Celebrity and the Transformation of American Theater and Culture, 1790-1850.” She has published research on female platform performance in the mid-19th century and on the career of African-American singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. Her broader interests include 19th-century women’s and gender history, celebrity studies, cultural history, and history of sexuality.

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