Interpretation and History’s Demands on the Present

Freedom Center Voices
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November 28, 2020

Interpretation and History’s Demands on the Present

“I, too, live in the time of slavery, by which I mean I am living in the future created by it.” 

— Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother (2007) 

There are many dates that school children learn when they are taught U.S. history. Notable among them are 1863, when Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and 1865, when the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed and formally outlawed slavery. While important, the dates alone do not convey the foundational significance and living legacies of slavery. The problem is not with the dates, but with the interpretation of history that they are asked to convey. 

Interpretation is what museum professionals call “the practice of communicating their collections to the public.” It is a process that broadly speaks to the importance of how we grapple with the personal and cultural relevance of any story, art object, or historical record. During my residency at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, I engage this question of interpretation to untangle the power and problem of drawing comparisons between the history of Black enslavement in the U.S. and the use of the phrase “modern day slavery” to refer to human trafficking. In a series of blog posts and public conversations, I will grapple with these tensions and reflect upon the multiple meanings of abolition today. 

My place of departure for the blog series starts from the observation made by Dr. Saidiya Hartman that “we” are living in the future created by slavery. Taken from her magnificent book Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, the sentence resonates beyond its complex implications for the descendants of slaves. Hartman interprets slavery as part of  both the past and present. She treats slavery as an inheritance, not only a chronology of events that fatefully ends with its demise. It is still difficult for many Americans, particularly white Americans, to grasp the many ways that we and our society continue to be structured by slave economies, colonialism, and the gravitational force of racism and anti-Blackness. In fact, many white Americans are unable to or refuse to connect slavery’s past to contemporary social justice issues.

The living legacies of slavery and colonialism are not hidden to Black, Indigenous, and people of color in the United States - it is white America that struggles to collectively reckon with our national DNA. For any significant grappling with the past as an inheritance, we white folks need to face the reality that slavery and colonialism continues to be in the DNA of us and our present moment. Yet, there continues to be strong, even virulent resistance to and fatigue about reckoning with that inheritance.

For many there is intense discomfort with the idea that white supremacy still has a structural hold on society. The refusal to see that stems, in part, from the long tradition of allowing guilt and shame to orchestrate white folks’ moral response to the living legacies of slavery and colonialism. When guilt and shame rule white consciousness about the past, we do not actually divest from white supremacy, but rather re-invest in the flimsy distinction between “good” versus “bad” white people. This is insufficient and actually perpetuates white supremacy, rendering it a matter of individual choices and acts. Like the material of genetic DNA, however, white supremacy self-replicates over time, although it may not look identical to earlier generations. And, like DNA, white supremacy is a trait we can not simply refuse: it requires active mitigation. The problem at the center of structural racism is the inability to dismantle white supremacy. 

In 1964, James Baldwin travelled to San Francisco to witness Black American life in what was and continues to be regarded as a liberal and cosmopolitan city. That trip is documented in the film Take This Hammer and is as piercing today as it was then in its depiction of the structural undermining of Black communities through the denial of employment and housing. At the start, Baldwin, in his quintessentially eloquent and biting way, muses that people can only pay their dues if they realize that is what they need to do. He often spoke of debts in relation to white America as he accurately saw how white superiority operates at the expense of others. Interpreting slavery as an inheritance possessed by white Americans requires ways of thinking and living that are not yet normalized or perhaps even really grapsed. As white Americans, we do not need to make a spectacle of guilt or shame or to just accurately identify the “bad guys.” We need to be willing to scrutinize our lives with humility and vulnerability and to be willing to interpret history as an inheritance that is alive in small and big ways, today.  

As I scrutinize my place in a society made by slavery, I have become wary of the moniker “modern day slavery.”  I understand that for many, naming human trafficking as “modern day slavery” is an expression of concern and ethical outrage. The phrase immediately conveys a message about injustice that perhaps is missed with the technical term “human trafficking.” Yet, the rhetorical usefulness of “modern day slavery” to convey the existence of human trafficking also has problematic material effects. That is to say, the problem with “modern day slavery” is more than a semantic issue. 

For example, while there is increased political concern for victims of trafficking, that concern has not translated into addressing the remaining debt that society still owes to the formerly enslaved and their descendants. The claim that slavery has a modern form suggests that there is an equivalency between chattel slavery and trafficking. While the idea that trafficking is modern slavery relies upon the metaphorical and moral power of the abolition of chattel slavery, that idea displaces and even conceals our responsibility to the living legacies of slavery.  As such, the term also clouds the fact that we are still operating within racial capitalism, a system produced by slaving economies. Furthermore, it is alarming that with the expansion of the anti-trafficking field, different social justice claims appear to compete rather than intersect. This tension is most apparent in regards to the role of the criminal legal system. While most anti-trafficking efforts validate and center the role of policing, courts, and incarceration these same institutions are viewed by a growing majority as the source of injustice.  

What would change if we sought out the intersections between the living legacies of slavery and colonialism and human trafficking? Likewise, how would our understanding of human trafficking change if we saw chattel slavery as not a metaphor for the present but as in the DNA of the present? Leading up to Human Trafficking Awareness Month (January) I will engage these and other questions.

Dr. Jennifer Suchland
2020-2021 Scholar-in-Residence
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Dr. Jennifer Suchland (she/her) is an associate professor at Ohio State University in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality and the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures. Her research, teaching, and activism are focused on critical human rights, intersectional and transnational feminism, and the intersection of law and culture. She is an avid gardener, loves to cook, bike, and go hiking with her friends and family. You can find her on Twitter @mightykale.
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