Free at Last?

150 years ago yesterday, President Abraham Lincoln released his draft Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that on January 1, 1863,  “all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." NPR has a brief exploration of some little-known history here, including this:

… Lincoln didn't create this moment all by himself. Throughout the war, he was hearing from generals in the field about slaves who ran away by the thousands, hoping to join the Union army. They were telling the generals, "We are here to demand our freedom. And we know you are here for other reasons, but you can't ignore us. We won't be ignored."

Lincoln's handwritten manuscript didn't stay in his possession for long. It was auctioned off in 1864, before the Civil War was even over, to raise money for relief efforts.

The first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation was sold?  Who knew? Historians, surely, but I didn't. 

And yet we all know that emancipation did not end the travails of the abducted Africans and their descendants, either those who were freed or the generations to come. Kevin Bales, founder of Free the Slaves (more on them later), regularly says that American emancipation was done wrong: While those who had been captured and sold or born into captivity were legally able to walk away, they were not trained in any new occupation and received no compensation for their years in bondage. As a result, many of them remained slaves in life, if not in law, via the plantation system, poverty, and the ever-escalating regime of segregation. It took another hundred years to begin dismantling the inheritance of slavery, the vicious enforcement of the idea that those victims and their descendants deserved their captivity because their color and ancestry made them inferior human beings, naturally criminals, forever to be despised.

For some anthropological reason, human beings regularly designate some group to be the unclean. For a century, Americans treated anyone black the way Deuteronomy instructed the ancient Hebrews to treat anyone unclean: "A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD. " (Deuteronomy 23:2) And so almost every other immigrant ethnicity in the U.S. has had a chance to rise—no matter how despised in their original country, no matter how distrusted when they first arrived—partly because we already had our fundamental other: African Americans, descendants of our nation’s original sin.

And yet here, at the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s announcement that the American system of chattel slavery would end, for all his morally mixed reasons—to gain more Union soldiers, among other reasons—we have an African American president. That’s longer than forty years in the desert, but—despite the birthers, despite the racial and racist attacks—it still sometimes takes my breath away.

Ah, but the United States—and the world—still contain slaves, people forced to work for no pay, unable to walk away because of fraud or coercion. Here’s where I come back to Kevin Bales. In India, millions are in intergenerational debt bondage, smashing rocks into gravel or making bricks in order to pay off a “debt” incurred by their grandfather. In Sudan and Somalia, captured war victims are taken as the victors’ household slaves or sold. In the Gulf States, Filipinos and Ethiopians and others who’ve taken the risk to migrate for better wages—so they can send money home to their children—have their passports confiscated, are kept captive inside the house or compound, beaten, underfed, forced to work around the clock, used for sex, and never paid. (Sometimes they’re brought to U.S. embassies; for the story of a Filipina woman held as a slave in a Kuwaiti U.S. consulate, read here.)

Legal migrant workers in the U.S. can face the same captivity and slavery, in fields, hotels, restaurants, nursing homes, nail and hair salons, homes, and factories. Runaway American girls are taken captive to be sold, over and over again, for sex so that someone else’s profit. Brazil has launched a national program to find and free its slaves, including federal antislavery squads, labor inspection, and enforcement specialists.

Today, we call slavery “human trafficking,” which is misleading: No one has to move across a border for it to count. The offense is holding someone captive. Consider this example from The Polaris Project:

Born and raised in a small village in Ghana, Natalia’s family was struggling to pay the school fees for their children’s education and welcomed the opportunity for Natalia to receive an education in the United States.

Shortly after she arrived in the US, the father she was living with began to physically and sexually abuse the young girl, creating a constant environment of fear for Natalia. For the next six years she was forced to clean the house, wash clothes, cook, and care for their three children, often working 18 hours a day while receiving no form of payment….

The difference, of course, the is that U.S. government no longer enforces slavery; it opposes it. The Justice Department and the State Department are on the victims’ side. From Kevin Bales’ imagined memo to Lincoln on this anniversary:



Congratulations. Firstly, Sir, thank you for your Emancipation Proclamation. It led the way to outlawing slavery nationwide through the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and it created a context in which a slave-free America is possible. The complete eradication of slavery from the United States will be a fitting tribute to your leadership and sacrifice, and the realization of the core American value of human freedom. This memo proposes ways to finish what you have started.

Prevalence of Slavery Today. As a hidden crime invisible to most statisticians, estimates of current U.S. slavery are imprecise. Conservative estimation suggests 40,000 to 100,000 slaves in the U.S. today (.00033 of population). Key areas of modern enslavement are commercial sexual exploitation, agricultural work, domestic service, restaurant and hotel work, and small-scale manufacturing. Traffickers and slaveholders are strongly linked to other criminal enterprises. Victims are both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens. Victims are also likely to be young and economically productive, tricked into slavery because their desire for gainful employment prompted them to trust someone offering a job. Federal trafficking cases have been pursued in all 50 states. Most occur in urban areas with international transit links.

Political Implications. Ending slavery in America is backed by strong bipartisan agreement and commitment. Ideological motivations differ, but there is robust concurrence on the desired outcome. No one argues that slavery is allowable or necessary today.

So what’s needed now to end modern slavery? Ask a variety of experts and you’ll hear a different models. California passed the Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010 to get corporations to report their supply chains, holding corporations accountable for slavery anywhere among their subcontractors; Representative Carolyn Maloney has proposed such a law for the U.S. Visa regulations desperately need to be reformed, in ways that deserve an in-depth exploration (full disclosure: I’m seeking funding to do that investigation). Free the Slaves works with local activists worldwide to do such things as, in India, bargain and buy entire Indian villages out of slavery from their feudal owners, while supplying those freed people enough money and training to make the transition to self-sufficient freedom. At a bare minimum, the U.S. Congress needs to get past its election-year logjam and pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, reauthorizing the genuinely bipartisan law that funds prevention, enforcement, and rescue efforts, requires the State Department to conduct annual world assessment  of various governments’ actions against slavery, and much more.  

Thank you, President Lincoln, for getting all this started. May we finish what you began.

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