We have all heard it before: History is about knowing dead people and long forgotten dates. Certainly, this popular refrain is at least partially true. I’m thinking of course of the multiple choice tests we were all forced to endure during high school. But far from this popular practice, the study of History is, in fact, a science. It stands as a systematic method of inquiry, where archived material, family papers, and public records are used to build interpretive frameworks that facilitate our understanding of the past. But History is not always retrogressive. These same interpretive frameworks can be applied to the present and, at times, the future, allowing for a bit of, shall we say, perspective as to our present condition, where we are going, and how to avoid the pitfalls that may arise along the way. The term “interpretive framework” is without a doubt vague, but they are highly familiar to us all. They manifest themselves in constructed ideas, phases, and concepts like “Paternalism,” “Antebellum,” and “Modernity” which come replete with their own sets of schemas and paradigms that help us make sense of a given historical topic.
The term “emancipation” is not quite as abstract. It is simply the act of being liberated from something, but it is most often applied to being freed from slavery. In American history, the national process of emancipation—I call it a process because that is truly what it was, starting with the Confiscation Acts and ending with the Thirteenth Amendment—was a monumental moment in our nation’s history, for it was the time when the promise of the Declaration of Independence was finally coming to fruition—at least for a while. Over the years, the study of our country’s emancipation process has since developed its own set of schemas and paradigms, making it, in my mind at least, its own interpretive framework for how we understand the dissolution of slavery in this country.
The only problem with these frameworks, however, is that sometimes they set limits to our understanding when our perspective on a given topic desperately needs to be expanded. In After Slavery, a collection of essays dealing with the challenges freedmen and women faced following the Civil War, Thomas C. Holt’s introductory essay titled “Slave and Citizen in the Modern World: Rethinking Emancipation in the Twenty-First Century” calls us to do just that.
Holt’s essay draws striking parallels between the worlds of plantation slavery and “slave-like” sweatshop labor, forcing the reader to consider the implications behind the reality that ancient methods of labor extraction still exist in a country that places the expansion of freedom at the center of its world view. Using a 1995 case occurring in the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte and a similar case in the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn, New York as a point of departure, Holt blurs the line between the diabolical and utterly inhumane Atlantic Slave Trade and the late twentieth century process we now know as Globalization. Both movements, he points out, arose out of a concerted effort to satisfy world markets with, in the case of the Atlantic slave trade, raw materials and under globalization, cheap goods—both of which could not have been accomplished without a steady abundance of cheap, mobile labor.
Parsing out the differences between slave labor and the “slave-like” labor found in sweatshops is a valid undertaking, but for this comparison, in-depth analysis is not needed. All that is needed to know is that sweatshop laborers are forced into oppressive labor situations where an undue amount of control is exerted over them. They are, to briefly paraphrase and add to Holt, often pushed into unfair labor contracts which sometimes mandate that a worker’s wage be withheld until a certain quota of production has been met, disallowed from organizing themselves as a bargaining labor force, inhibited from seeking outside allies, and often racialized–meaning that many of the workers come from other parts of the globe, creating what Holt calls a “not-us” or outsider mentality, allowing them to be tucked away in enclaves out of plain site. In essence, they are not in any way the single independent agents in their own lives, which, in my mind, is enough to grant validity to the comparison. Might I point out too that Holt’s essay does not even mention the nefarious and all too real world of sex slavery, a system that I would presume warrants an even stronger comparison.
But so what? What purpose does this comparison serve and how does it relate to thinking about Emancipation? Well this topic is certainly one that needs more study for a final conclusion to be made, but I think the message, at this stage at least, is simple. The comparison proves that just as the Civil Rights Movement did not eradicate notions of white supremacy (do we need to look any farther than Charleston, S.C. for proof of this?), our country’s national emancipation process did not put an end to the terrible human quality that beckons one to exploit the labor of another for personal gain. It is a quality, quite frankly, that is engrossed in greed, making it inherent to human nature. As a result, our country’s emancipation process is one that, I believe, is never ending, and its history should help shape our future policy, lest slavery, in any of its nuances or variances like sweatshop labor or sex slavery, creep back into our society.
Holt, Thomas. “Slave and Citizen in the Modern World: Rethinking Emancipation in the Twenty-First Century.” in Baker, Bruce E., and Brian Kelly. After slavery : Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South, Gainesville : University Press of Florida, 2013.