Guest Post: On the Past’s Presence: Historians against Slavery

Today’s guest post comes from Nathan Jérémie-Brink, a Ph.D. student at Loyola University Chicago. His current research examines African-American print culture as it relates to religious and antislavery movements. Nathan also currently serves as the new media assistant for Common-place.

Historians Against SlaverySept. 19-21, 2013 marked the first annual conference of Historians Against Slavery, at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. It is true that very few historians today would endorse John C. Calhoun’s opinion that slavery was in history or is now “a positive good.” Even so, historians rarely consider the valuable role that our research, and our teaching may play in present-day antislavery movements. The fear of presentism remains an obstacle to the historian’s meaningful involvement in modern-day activism. Certainly, historians must avoid anachronistic descriptions of slavery that undermine the specific realities of the early-modern Atlantic world and the early American republic. But there ought to be openness in the academy and in the discipline to let the historical record elucidate comparisons or contrasts between slaveries of the past and the present. 

With all that in mind, this year’s annual conference raised new issues and considered a range of solutions. The aims for the event were signaled in the conference theme, “Crossing Boundaries, Making Connections: American Slavery and Antislavery Now and Then.” In their opening comments, current HAS co-director Stacey Robertson and HAS founder James Brewer Stewart weighed in on the theme. Later, Douglas Blackmon, author of Slavery By Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to WWII, delivered the first night’s keynote address. He observed that after the Civil War, the promise of economic gains facilitated the perseverance of diverse denials of freedom in the American South. Neoslavery, inclusive of debt peonage and prison labor, continued racial oppression and human bondage in order to maximize profits. Blackmon’s quest to locate instances of “a persistent past” can be instructive for historians of the early American republic, particularly with regard to teaching. If we present U.S. slavery from the American Revolution to the Civil War as too static an institutional form and political feature, then we risk eliminating important conceptual bridges between past and ongoing labor exploitation.

Another way of connecting past and present forms of slavery came from John Donoghue, who outlined his research on English and Irish bond-labor in the 17th-century British Atlantic. He argued that a degree of mutability in the specific forms of unfree labor existed even before the exponential proliferation of the African trade and the founding of the American republic. Expanding on the lessons of this colonial period, Donoghue suggested that some type of “manufactured vulnerability” was a pervasive precondition to various types of bondage in early America, and reminded HAS attendees that it remains an enduring feature of unfree labor today.

Panels with explicit historical investigations included discussions of maritime slavery, Indians as slaves and slave-holders, child labor abuses, the “limits of freedom” for black women in the American South and Old Northwest, feminist approaches to sexual exploitation, and abolitionist rhetorical and visual strategies. In his comments on Native Americans’ relationship to slavery in the early American republic, Karim Tiro reflected that the insights gleaned from these histories may function to “inform real-world moral triage.” Phrases like this represented a dramatic but refreshing departure from the standard discussions at a scholarly conference. This shift was aided by a conference format that featured pre-circulated papers and brief presentations in favor of audience engagement.

It was perhaps the panels of modern day anti-trafficking activists that proved to be the most interesting and inspiring. A lunch address from Norma Ramos on contemporary sex trafficking advocated use of definitions consistent with an expansive call for women’s liberation. Baldemar Velasquez of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee shared his own story of worker exploitation as a migrant farmer. He joined representatives from the Coalition for Immokolee Workers on a panel that addressed issues related to immigrant rights and farm labor. Another session featured testimonies regarding prison labor and prison privatization currently taking place in the state of Ohio and elsewhere. Finally, in her evening keynote address, Shamere McKenzie spoke of how she had been enslaved, sex-trafficked, and subsequently prosecuted by the U.S. legal system. She recounted her journey to freedom, restoration, and ongoing activism against slavery in the form of sex-trafficking.

The third day of the conference featured modern-day antislavery strategies. One panel examined abolitionist media and messaging in the past and in the present. Other papers compared Lydia Maria Child and Kevin Bales using rhetorical analysis, examined the optics of antislavery messaging, and considered the role of cultural memory. HAS attendees also had the opportunity to tour the Freedom Center, and student groups presented theur work, along with representatives from The Free Project’s student-organization-building resource.

A notable feature of the HAS conference was digital interaction—HAS board member and social media coordinator Caleb McDaniel improved the organization’s website and blog; organizers encouraged live coverage on social media. As one of the conference-goers live-tweeting for HAS, alongside Whitney Stewart and Ben Wright, I was encouraged to see both an impressive record of the conference happenings and a significant participation in the discussion among followers unable to attend the conference. I think this bodes well for the future of the HAS organization, and it could prove an interesting commentary on academic and activist functions of social media. To access a more complete record of the 2013 Historians Against Slavery Conference please feel free to browse the Storify of the conference tweets and digital media. Also, look for more conference content to post soon on the Historians Against Slavery blog.

2 comments on “Guest Post: On the Past’s Presence: Historians against Slavery

  1. Thanks for the overview of the conference, Nathan! I hope Junto readers will be inspired to join us and check out our website.

    I should add, by the way, that Nicole Scalessa, our Director of Communications and the designer of many other early American history websites like the one at the Library Company, deserves the lion’s share of the credit for our website redesign.

  2. […] guest post on The Junto, an outstanding group blog on early American history, was written by HAS supporter Nathan […]

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