Most Americans believe that the Civil War put an end to human bondage a century and a half ago—end of story. In the face of this nearly unshakeable belief, the difficulty of stimulating widespread opposition to today’s globalized forms of enslavement is obvious and antislavery activists today are hard put to overcome it. The crux of the problem is simply that most ordinary Americans fail to connect today’s slavery with their ingrained historical understanding of African American bondage and its abolition. Whenever antislavery activists lament the belief that slavery vanished at the conclusion of the Civil War, they are actually documenting a historical blindness for which, strangely enough, historians are responsible.
What follows is one historian’s attempt to make amends.
To begin, why not believe in slavery’s permanent demise in 1865? After all, we historians are the ones who have assured Americans time and again that emancipation constitutes a transformational event in United States history thanks to an enormous civil war. That war left over seven hundred and fifty thousand dead and an additional four hundred thousand wounded while emancipating roughly four million people in what stands as the largest governmental appropriation of private property until the Russian Revolution. Scholars like me also insist that Americans can better understand the nation’s ongoing racial difficulties once they are connected to the legacies of enslavement, emancipation, the collapse of Reconstruction, and the merciless racist terrorism that came afterward.
Little wonder, then, that the vast majority of Americans find it difficult to empathize with today’s enslaved, believing instead (as blockbuster films such as “Twelve Years a Slave,” “Glory,” and “Lincoln” have powerfully reinforced) that all slaves were black, that their owners were all white, and that the Thirteenth Amendment eliminated human bondage.
Any mention of slavery in 2015 leads Americans to fasten instinctively not on slavery today but instead on the symbols of African American emancipation’s enduring legacies—Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Gettysburg, Martin Luther King, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Meanwhile, today’s manacled wood cutters in Brazil, children trapped behind barbed-wire fences on West African cacao plantations, enslaved vegetable pickers in the Florida panhandle, or prostituted women and children trafficked in Bangkok and St. Louis remain wholly unrecognizable as enslaved people.
How can we cure Americans of this moral astigmatism?
Answers, fortunately, are readily at hand in any up-to-date American history textbook. There you’ll find accounts of the problem of slavery in the pre-Civil War era that provide some dramatic contrasts with the slavery we encounter today. Such contrasts begin to unlock the problem of invisibility.
- The old slavery was legal and widely considered a respectable practice. Abolitionists attacked it from close range and caused enormous controversy. Today’s slavery is illegal and universally condemned. Today’s abolitionists have no proslavery advocates to argue against. How can an abolitionist movement thrive in the absence of controversy?
- In the nineteenth century, slavery constituted the United States’ second-largest capital asset. Controversy over slavery involved incredibly high stakes. Though enormously profitable, the enslaved today are treated as “disposable” people. Their labor has no visible impact on our formal economy. In today’s economic terms, who cares?
- Because of their skin color, the enslaved in the South were easy to identify. Though racism and ethnic hatred often motivates slaveholders today, slavery involves so many races and ethnicities that the enslaved themselves become much harder for Americans to identify.
- Yesteryear’s enslaved troubled the white nation by rebelling, fleeing, and becoming formidable abolitionists. The enslaved today remain isolated.
- Back then, abolitionists fought against geographically defined opponents and the enslaved escaped from their masters across those same geographical boundaries. Today’s slavery respects no boundaries. Traffickers remain out of sight. How can we fight for enslaved people if we cannot see them?
Quickly it begins to become clear why Americans have such difficulty responding empathetically to the enslaved today. The staggering contrasts between “then” and “now” make today’s forms of slavery all but unrecognizable to historically conditioned Americans until they are presented in comparison with one another, at which point the realities of modern enslavement and the distinctive brutalities of the “old” slavery both become perfectly clear.