Why I Joined Historians Against Slavery

(Note: The following is a repost of an article I wrote last year.)

I deeply admire 19th century American abolitionists. Wendell Phillips is my favorite, but I also deeply admire individuals like Lydia Maria Child, Frederick Douglass, Samuel Joseph May, Harriet Tubman, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Sojourner Truth, and William Lloyd Garrison. I even have a deep respect for John Brown. I believe that I would have been a radical, Garrisonian abolitionist if I had been alive in the 1800s. That is why I am so interested in the history of American slavery, despite the fact that this interest sometimes leads people to accuse me of being race-obsessed. Yet because it is 2011 and not 1850, I cannot work side by side with Wendell Phillips fighting plantation slavery in the South. What I can do, however, is join the modern day antislavery movement. While slavery is illegal in most countries and the percentage of people enslaved is far lower than it once was, at least in the United States, millions of people are still kept as slaves and subjected to human trafficking. Now, let me be clear: when I refer to “human trafficking,” I am not talking about a business in Nevada where people sign up to be employed as prostitutes. I am speaking of a system in which people are forced to perform services, sometimes sexual, against their will. I was slow to get involved in the 21st century antislavery movement, because unlike in antebellum America, modern day slavery is not present in the public eye. It lurks in the shadows. I first really thought about joining the cause when I attended the Wendell Phillips Bicentennial in June. While there, I met and established a correspondence with the keynote speaker, retired professor James Brewer Stewart. In addition to being the author ofWendell Phillips: Liberty’s Hero, which I own an autographed copy of, Stewart is a founder of Historians Against Slavery. In addition to liking Stewart personally, I believe that he and the members of his organization have the outlook best suited for taking on 21st century slavery. On their website, they state, “We’re convinced that historical knowledge and perspective are essential to understanding modern slavery and for combatting it effectively. This knowledge and perspective is grounded in the history of the enslavement of Africans and indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere and in the many other systems of slavery once prominent throughout the world.” Unfortunately, this historical perspective in which the struggle against current enslavement is placed in the framework of a centuries long struggle that includes the black freedom movement in America, is sadly missing from some modern day antislavery and “Save Africa” groups. These groups tend to be divided into two wings. The first wing includes men like Barney Frank, John Lewis, Elie Wiesel, Jim Stewart, and Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group, who are the spiritual descendants of nineteenth century abolitionists, consistently oppose racism against blacks, and in some cases got their start in the Civil Rights Movement. The second wing resembles the racist American Colonization Society and is composed of evangelical and fundamentalist Southern Christians who are often sympathetic to slavery in the Old South, hostile to African Americans, or have records of defending Jim Crow/apartheid. Rather than acting out of a belief in the equality of all races before God, these individuals fight against slavery and Sudanese genocide out of a desire to assauge their guilt over their own racism or out of a viewpoint that even inferiors deserve some form of Christian charity. In the case of Darfur, we see some Bible thumpers who had no problem with atrocities committed by white Christians against black Christians in the United States but recoil in horror when they see Muslims persecuting black Christians. Jesse Helms was a segregationist who opposed admitting blacks into his church. Pat Robertson is a bit better on racial issues in America, as he did spend time living in a ghetto in New York City and racially integrated houses of worship. Still, he is a soft core white supremacist who showed sympathy with the apartheid government in South Africa, criticized the notion that black South Africans could receive equal rights immediately, and has indicated opposition to Brown v. Board of Education. Yet they both were involved in trying to improve the plight of black Sudanese slaves. Back in the days when I would still occasionally set foot in a Southern Baptist church, I happened to walk into one and see an advertisement urging congregation members to aid suffering blacks in Sudan. Now, it would have not been at all ironic if I had seen this advertisement in an American Baptist church, or a UCC church, or a Unitarian church. But the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in part out of a belief that enslaving blacks was condoned by God. And according to religious historian Andrew M. Manis, “the majority of Southern Baptists upheld racial segregation and rejected claims of Christian brotherhood and the civil rights movement.” Jesse Helms would have no concept of the way in which people like Wendell Phillips and John Lewis were the forerunners of 21st century abolitionism. Historians Against Slavery is free from these contradictions. Furthermore, I believe that members will be more likely than Helms, Robertson, and their ilk to understand my desire to link abolitionism and gay rights as part of a struggle for equality regardless of immutable traits. Indeed, when I told him about using Wendell Phillips as an influence in my gay rights work, Stewart stated, “As you know, the abolitionists’ approach to inducing social and political change is what informs Historians Against Slavery and so why not for gay rights as well?”


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