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Hostage to History? Slavery, then and today

Zoe Trodd speaks to Maiken Umbach about learning from the history of anti-Slavery, and where this history created problems in the present.

In this video, Professor Zoe Trodd, Director of the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham, talks to Maiken Umbach about the history of slavery and abolitionism. The past, she suggests, can provide crucial lessons for the campaign against slavery in the contemporary world. But it also contains problems…

One key discussion point in this conversation is the role of images. Images, Zoe suggests, have been powerful tools for advancing the cause of abolitionism. Because they speak directly to our feelings about injustice, they have worked in more immediate ways than words to mobilise support for ending slavery. Images still fulfill that role today. But those campaigning for a definitive end to slavery sometimes rely too much on historical images: either by directly copying them, or by adapting them to modern life: the 19th-century slave ships becomes the 20th-century aeroplane. We will explore more examples of this in the next step in detail.

In the comment thread, we would like you to consider the role of images in political campaigning today. Can you think of particular traditions or histories that influence which images are used today, by campaigners, political parties, interest groups, protest movements? And what is the role of these histories: do they provide useful ammunition for just causes, or can they have unintended and perhaps harmful side effects?

Further Resources:

In her talk, Zoe mentions the “Rights Lab” at the University of Nottingham, in which over 100 academics collaborate to provide critical research that can help the cause of anti-slavery in the contemporary world. You can find it here:

Zoe also discusses the Global Anti-Slavery Index, the official tool used for measuring and understanding contemporary slavery. Its website is here:

Finally, on images, you might be interested in hearing more about Frederick Douglass, whom Zoe mentions as a key 19th century activist, who already sought to develop a visual language that challenged a culture of White “rescue” and “pity” as the driving forces of abolitionism. Zoe discusses his work in this illustrated longer talk:

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Learning from the Past: A Guide for the Curious Researcher

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