Using History to Make Slavery History

Illustration created by Antislavery Usable Past Project at the University of Nottingham in 2014. Used with permission from the creators.

This is the third in a series about American History and the Ethics of Memory. This post originally appeared on November 17, 2015.

“Using History to Make Slavery History.” That was the title of this year’s conference of Historians Against Slavery (HAS), a four-year-old organization created to “bring historical context and scholarship to the modern-day antislavery movement in order to inform activism.” A related endeavor, the Antislavery Usable Past project, aims similarly to “bring to the present the important lessons from antislavery movements and policies of the past, and translate those lessons into effective tools for policy makers, civil society, and citizens.” There aren’t many venues in which—as at the HAS conference, which I attended last month—history professors, human-rights activists, and survivors of modern slavery sit side-by-side behind a panel table on an auditorium stage.

Plenty of critical issues could benefit from richer public knowledge of the past—climate change and the early history of industrialism, say—but contemporary antislavery activism stands out for the extensiveness of its recourse to academic history. It makes for an illuminating study in the ways different notions of “history” may inform contemporary ethics.

In the wake of the June 2015 Charleston shooting, a New York Times blogger wrote about her determination no longer to speak to her children about America’s “history” of racial violence. She felt it her responsibility to acknowledge, rather, that “the saga of racism in this country is ongoing.” In that formulation, the present is (regrettably) continuous with the past, and the word “history” means what it means at the end of the HAS conference’s title—dead and gone. History is imagined chiefly in contrast to our own time: if the events around us resemble those of decades past, then they belong not to “history” but rather to us. Getting “on the right side of history,” as some like to say (a phrasing Andy Cullison and I recently discussed in a podcast), means getting out in front of history; putting it, and its injustices, behind us.

When it comes to slavery’s history, the word is no simple synonym for “over.”

There are indeed striking and distressing similarities between the 2015 Charleston shooting and, for instance, the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, or lynchings in the early post-Civil War South. All were acts of criminal homicide—indeed, terrorism—by white supremacists targeting African Americans. Racist violence is a part of American history that, tragically, is not over. Past and present forms of slavery, on the other hand, are distinct from each other, and in some fundamental ways. Slavery in the pre-Civil War U.S. was legal, highly visible, and situated at the center of the economy. Today, it exists under the radar of laws and in the shadows of global trade. Slavery is not “history”—in the sense of being gone from the earth—but neither is it today a straightforward continuation of what it was in the past.

The slavery of the pre-Civil War U.S. has been the object of tremendous scholarly attention for years, and public consciousness of its atrocities perhaps reached its high-water mark at the moment 12 Years a Slave won the Academic Award for Best Picture. Of course, it took a long time for that water to rise from where it was when Gone With the Wind won the same award in 1939. And the recent controversy about a high-school history textbook’s allusion to the arrival African “workers” on southern plantations shows how deeply flawed cultural memory of slavery still can be. Still, a relatively strong cultural memory of slavery (Slate.com recently devoted its first Slate Academy to “The History of American Slavery”) forms a foundation on which contemporary anti-slavery activists can build.

The Polaris Project, one of the leading international organizations opposing human trafficking, seized on the success of 12 Years a Slave to publicize its own work, naming the film’s director, Steve McQueen, an awareness-raising “ambassador” and “highlighting the striking parallels” between Solomon Northup’s kidnapping and enslavement in the 1840s “and the experiences of sex and labor trafficking victims today.” The image at the top of this page, likewise, seeks to make continuities between historical and contemporary slavery visible amid their differences—by situating the famous chart of the slave ship Brookes, which galvanized British abolitionism when it was published in 1788, inside a commercial jetliner.

In fact, there are several ways of seeing continuities between slavery’s American history and its presence in the world now. Along one stream, the race-based chattel slavery of the antebellum U.S. persists in illegal forced labor around the world today, an altered form of rapacious capital-accumulation on the backs of vulnerable people. Another stream flows from historical slavery—in particular, its notorious instances of sexual exploitation of enslaved women—to modern sex trafficking. Still another passes through the “exception clause” in the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Here, race matters once again, given the disproportionate incarceration of African American men, and the other streams re-converge with this one when U.S. prison labor serves corporate interests or when the prison system harbors sexual slavery.

It can seem, as David Gellman has written in this space, “jarring” to move from Louisiana plantations 175 years ago “to children prostituted in Thailand and brick kiln laborers in the thralls of debt bondage in India, or to migrant laborers in Florida and housekeepers in Washington, D.C.” But the potential payoff is significant. Making that move can tap into a vast public consensus that slavery is an intolerable injustice. Believing in a human right to freedom isn’t a partisan position.

Yet it remains that there is relatively little public awareness that enslavement still happens, or that, even if some very bad things happen, they merit the odious name of “slavery.” (Are candidates talking about slavery in presidential debates? No.) The will to stop human trafficking and commercial exploitation is hampered less by ideological divisions than by ideas about the past—notions of a history that’s believed to be over.

In the U.S., emancipation is a central part of our cultural memory, our heritage. America may be a nation that was built on the backs of slaves, but it is also a nation that fought a great war to set those slaves free. It is well that it should be so remembered. Little progress toward justice in our own time will be accomplished if Americans do not remember that their nation endured terrible suffering to secure the liberty of four million African Americans. The challenge is to celebrate that without failing to perceive, acknowledge, and work to understand both slavery’s tragic legacies and the forms in which slavery endures.

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Christopher Hager is the Schaenen Scholar for the current school year. Dr. Hager received his bachelor's degree from Stanford University and his Ph.D. from Northwestern University. He is an Associate Professor of English at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he teaches courses in American literature and cultural history and, for the past three years, has co-directed the Center for Teaching and Learning. He is the author of Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing (Harvard Univ. Press, 2013), a study of the writing practices of enslaved and recently emancipated African Americans, which won the Frederick Douglass Prize and was a finalist for the Lincoln Prize.