Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Speaking of Historians and Public Activism

A recently-formed group, "Historians Against Slavery," hopes to call attention to human trafficking. Its founder, Professor James Brewer Stewart of Macalester College, calls trafficking for labor and sex "today's slavery" and compares it to yesterday's trans-Atlantic African chattel slavery. In rallying scholars to support the group, its founder invoked the names of John Hope Franklin, C. Vann Woodward, and Kenneth Stamp, "historians who changed the national conversation about social justice." "The ember is fading," said Stewart.

The group's website explains that its members are academics who "have become abolitionists." David Brion Davis, the distinguished professor of history and expert on slavery (Yale, emeritus), is a founding member of Historians Against Slavery. Its Board of Directors includes Professor Joyce Appleby (UCLA, emeritus) and Lonnie Bunch, Director, Museum of African American History and Culture, The Smithsonian Institution.

Historians Against Slavery intends to use history as a "tool" for opposing contemporary slavery and cites the following "facts" to "urge abolitionist activism":

Three times as many people all over the world today are bought, sold, detained coerced and uncompensated than there were enslaved Africans in the western hemisphere when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation—around 9 million then, approximately 27 million now. Is slavery less a crime against humanity this week than it was before the Civil War? If our answer is “no”, what should we be doing about it?

Organizations engaged in day-to-day antislavery work are all but invisible to most Americans and attract almost no popular support. Animal Rights is far more popular a cause today than freeing people from slavery. Should pets continue being valued over people? How might Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth have responded to this question?

Was slavery truly abolished in the United States in 1865? Despite the Thirteenth Amendment large numbers of African Americans were bought and sold as exploited prison labor well into the 20th century. White reformers meanwhile condemned the widespread sexual trafficking of European immigrant women as “white slavery.” How does this history “post-emancipation slavery” relate to today’s racialized incarceration rates, the rise of for-profit prisons and the alarming spread of sexual enslavement in the United States?

Back in Lincoln’s time, thousands of ordinary people spent lifetimes fighting against slavery. How did they manage this and what lessons might we learn from their struggles? Why, by contrast, are there so few militant abolitionists today? How might a fuller understanding of our abolitionist past work against apathy and promote a new antislavery movement?

For more on the group and its thought-provoking framing of the problem of human trafficking, see