Discussing slavery today

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By Elke E. Stockreiter

This editorial was featured in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

Elke E. Stockreiter is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Iowa.

Slavery is an institution that many consider to be a chapter of history. It also is a topic that evokes strong emotions and stirs controversy. It is associated with exploitation, humiliation and ongoing questioning among descendants of slaves about its causes and consequences.

Iowans and people in the United States may think that discussing slavery necessarily means discussing plantation slavery. Yet it is important to consider that not only agricultural slavery but also domestic slavery has been essential to the formation of political entities and to the evolution of societies across time and space. Since antiquity, slavery has existed in multiple forms in most societies and still can be found on all continents today.

Thinking of slaves and their lives tends to focus on male slaves men captured in Africa and sent to the Americas to work on plantations. In other parts of the world, notably the Middle East and Muslim Africa, slavery is associated with women: the harem, which refers to a space in the house reserved for women. The harem represents the secluded world of female slaves rendering sexual services to their master, which has made them enigmatic and objects of male as well as female erotic fantasies for centuries. This gendered picture of male slaves doing hard menial work and female slaves having a more leisurely existence in the domestic sphere was blurred in reality. Both male and female slaves were enslaved to work in the fields and in the household.

The abolition of slavery was an important historical process. It occurred in different parts of the world at different times, starting toward the end of the 18th century and continuing during the 19th century. It opened new opportunities for male and female slaves to take their lives in their own hands as free men and women. Although historians have produced abundant studies on slavery, we are far away from understanding this institution in all its complexity. We still need to further explore the relationship between the genders, between slave owners, both male and female, and slaves, and how these relationships were renegotiated after abolition, for instance. Questions about the slave family often are unaccounted for, as historical evidence is scarce.

In history books, we read about the abolition of slavery; in the news, we hear about human trafficking. Is there any relationship between these two forms of human bondage? After the abolition of slavery was achieved and celebrated, a new way to describe ongoing forms of human bondage had to be found.

Today we know slavery as human trafficking, which still affects millions of people across the world. It includes the exploitation of children as sex workers, soldiers, and agricultural and industrial laborers. As a woman living in the 21st century, I am deeply perturbed about human trafficking. As a historian, I am curious about understanding its historical roots.

I spent part of this summer in Zanzibar, a small island off the East African coast, which was a hub in the Indian Ocean slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. When I am in Zanzibar, I am drawn into the daily interactions between the descendants of former slaves and of former slave owners. The latter seek to justify why their ancestors kept slaves and to reassure visitors that they live harmoniously with the descendants of slaves. Despite these reassurances and the fact that slavery was abolished a century ago, Zanzibaris still reckon social status based on traces of slave origin.

I would like to invite readers to engage with slavery as memory and history as well as part of the present. Slavery lives on not only in form of human trafficking but also in forms of music and the performing arts. A wide range of emotions and experiences that slaves went through have been captured by artists and have become part of common cultural heritage.

For a chance to hear a variety of scholars discuss the complexities of slavery and gender in history, consider visiting the Obermann Humanities Symposium: “Causes and Consequences: Global Perspectives on Gender and the History of Slavery.” Learn more

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