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Contemporary slave narratives – An introduction

Contemporary slave narratives are part of a long antislavery protest literature tradition. This excerpt by Kevin Bales and Zoe Trodd explains more.
© Cornell University Press
The book To Plead Our Own Cause contains 95 narratives by slaves and former slaves from around the globe, including several that you read in the previous step.
Told in the words of slaves themselves, the narratives chronicle the horrors of contemporary slavery, the process of becoming free, and the challenges faced by former slaves as they build a life in freedom.
In this except from the book’s introduction, the editors Kevin Bales and Zoe Trodd explain the literary tradition of the slave narrative, and some of the key characteristics of the contemporary narratives.
After reading the excerpt, you might ask yourself these questions. What else characterises the contemporary slave narrative? What do the narratives have in common, as devices? And how do these compare to the characteristics of 19th-century slave narratives?
In 1997, Roseline Odine was trafficked from Cameroon and enslaved in Washington, D.C. After escaping from her captors in 1999, she visited the Lincoln Memorial. Standing in the Great Emancipator’s shadow, she commented on the irony of her presence there: “I mean, he fought to make sure that slavery doesn’t happen.” As Roseline knows all too well, the Thirteenth Amendment is violated every day in the District of Columbia and around the world. Globally, there are 46 million slaves alive today. Making slavery illegal hasn’t made it disappear, only disappear from view.
The ninety-five narratives that make up this book belie the notion that slavery is over. In narrating their stories, Roseline and others shift modern slavery out of Lincoln’s shadow—the ongoing myth that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Slavery continues, and so too does the slave narrative tradition. In giving witness to the fact of slavery, these new stories can be understood as continuing a tradition begun in the nineteenth century by Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and the many former slaves who used narrative as a tool for abolition. Recognizing this tradition, we have chosen to title our book To Plead Our Own Cause. The first issue of the abolitionist newspaper Freedom’s Journal, on March 16, 1827, included a banner on its front page that read: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly.” This phrase, “to plead our own cause,” encapsulates the power at the heart of the slave testimony. And nineteenth-century antislavery organizations recognized that power by employing former slaves as lecturers and then publishing the lectures as narratives. With their calls for abolition alongside their first-hand descriptions of bondage and their assertions of their own humanity, the slave narratives were abolitionism’s most popular and effective genre of writing. Now, modern narratives put the slave’s voice back at the heart of the abolitionist movement.
Some narrators in this book told their stories to abolitionist groups in order to raise general awareness of slavery today. Others were seeking specific changes: some told their stories at congressional sessions on the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and the End Demand for Sex Trafficking Act; Sam wrote his story to help end the ongoing enslavement of his wife; and Masha and Irina told their stories to protest the potential for increased trafficking during the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Dina Chan told her story as a member of the Sex Workers Union of Toul Kork (Cambodia), and followed it by recommending an end to police harassment and advocating legislation to protect sex workers. Beatrice told her story to the U.S. Congress and included calls for public awareness campaigns, the education of at-risk populations, greater monitoring of job agencies, and the removal of shame from slavery. The narrators in this book are explicit in their desire to effect change with storytelling. “By talking out, people will be more aware and more able to help people become free,” explains Mende. Ruth observes that her purpose after slavery is to “tell my testimony . . . so people will know that this thing is a real thing.” And Chantha hopes that “by sharing my story . . . I can help prevent others from the deep sadness of my life.” Rama wants to “tell the government that these kids exist,” imagining the government surrounding “the loom on all sides” and rescuing children. With their protest literature, the narrators reach out to other slaves as well as those in power. “I write this story so that maybe someone who hears it will somehow be able to avoid the pain that was forced on me,” explains Jill. Battis imagines being “an example for my friends” to “prevent them from getting into the trap of bondage.” And Anita tells her story to “help other women who are forced into prostitution.”
New slave narratives may also be considered within the explosion of storytelling in the human rights field over the last twenty years. Identifying this explosion in 2004, Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith noted that storytelling has become “one of the most potent vehicles for advancing human rights claims.” To Plead Our Own Cause presents slave narratives performing the cultural work explained by Schaffer and Smith: “[intervening] in the public sphere, contesting social norms, exposing the fictions of official history, and prompting resistance.” Targeting oppression and silence, the modern slave narrative has emancipatory power as a linguistic weapon of the violated. Respecting how the experience of slavery is narrated, as well as what the experience is, we are publishing the narratives—both written and oral—as they were told. We have made no additions or rearrangements to create happy endings or dramatic climaxes, no attempts to clean up oddities of phrasing.
Subtle, complex, and creative, these are voices telling “a free story,” as William Andrews writes of nineteenth-century slave narrators. And, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes of earlier slave narratives, the texts are a “reversal of the master’s attempt to transform a human being into a commodity,” for they give “witness” to “the possession of a humanity shared in common” with nonslaves. Slavery makes a person “an object,” in Dina’s words. Nu has felt “like a piece of flesh, being inspected, bought, and sold,” Beatrice and other women have been examined “as if we were vacuum cleaners,” and Iliona has experienced the transformation of women into “senseless objects.” But now the narrators make themselves subjects of a story instead of objects for sale and assert their humanity in the wake of being “less than human” (as Jill puts it) or “not a human being” (as William observes). Now, as then, former slaves are engaged in a process of “self-making” and achieve with their narratives what Andrews terms “literary emancipation.” The book is divided into five sections. Section 1 offers what one narrator, Bin, refers to as the “strange scene” of slavery: narratives of prison camp slavery, war slavery, contract slavery in factories, bonded labor in stone quarries, sex slavery, fetish slavery in shrines, and carpet loom slavery. They are by men, women, and children, by individuals enslaved within their own countries (like the Sudanese and Indian narrators), and by individuals trafficked across international borders. Isra’s narrative describes trafficking from developing countries into North America, while the Chinese prison camp narratives show slavery entering the global economy. The narratives are by individuals still held in bondage (Munni and Shanti), by slaves who were liberated by abolitionists (like most of the children from India), and by slaves who freed themselves (like Valdete).
The narratives in section 2 focus on the particularities of the modern slave experience for women and girls—an experience that often includes sexual exploitation. Composed by women from Asia, Africa, the United States, and eastern Europe, who were trafficked internally and across international borders, these narratives resist the idea that there can be any single voice or face of female slavery. As Kaew puts it in her narrative, “If you talk to different women, you will get very different stories.” These women recount the varied origins of slavery, including poverty and sexual abuse at home or within marriages, kidnappings, and false offers of good jobs abroad. They describe a variety of slave experiences, from thefts of their passports and forced plastic surgeries to torture, mock executions, private and public rapes, starvation, forced marriages, abortions, drug addiction, and threats to kill their families. The narrators tell varied liberation stories and offer details of their lives after slavery: attempts to support their children, the decision to enter prostitution, time in prison, rejection by their families, or HIV infection.
Yet running throughout these stories is a sense of the shared impact of slavery on women. “No one in the world can get over sleeping with one man after another who does not love you,” argues Nu. Seven months pregnant and living at a shelter in Bangkok, Nu offers a statement of despair for all girls born into her world: “I am waiting to give birth to my baby. I hope it is not a girl. She must not suffer like me.” Christine, who refers to all sex slaves as her “sisters,” describes the collective identity of trafficking survivors: “We are women in search of freedom.” She imagines herself as a representative of the female slave experience: “I am not alone in my testimony, and I am not alone in spirit.” Addressing other slaves directly, Christine shifts in her narrative from “we” to “you.” She forges a collective through the page itself, concluding, “You have my word that I will lend you my hand.” Other women in section 2 use the same strategy: “I’ll call myself Maria in this story. . . . There are many Marias.” And as a representative woman of twenty-first-century slavery, Maria, for one, believes her narrative might “stop ‘Maria’s Story’ from happening again.”
The narratives in section 3 take up the idea of a turning point from slave to free and offer different timetables, reasons, and processes for this turning point. For some narrators it was a sudden realization, and for others it was a gradual shift. Some craft the physical journey into and out of slavery as a psychological passage, and others explain the psychological passage in physical terms. Some focus on the moment of escape, and others explain that the real turning point occurred before they broke free from enslavement. And for some, the turning point comes a long time after their liberation, as though being free means more than just walking away from bondage. True liberation is often a process, not an event, and Roseline’s narrative even has a double ending—her life after slavery as a long process of shifting from bondage to freedom. “It’s good, after all, that everything happened. It actually made me strong, so I can face anything that comes to me,” she observes, but adds that the “clock can’t turn back,” that the “damage . . . will stay with me for the rest of my life. . . . I can never forget.”
The narrators in section 4 explore this problem of freedom. Formerly child soldiers, sex slaves, restavecs, and chattel slaves, they are in different stages of reaction and recovery. Their narratives reveal the self in flux, still shifting and reshifting across the turning point, and the self in stasis, trapped on the side of slavery even after liberation. Surviving the experience of enslavement, as Jill observes in her narrative, doesn’t mean that individuals have “become safe from it.” For the narrators, one problem of freedom is the vast gulf between their own experiences and those of free people. Jean-Robert extends this gulf of experience to encompass the ironic coexistence of slavery and abolition’s bicentennial (“every Haitian will take to the streets to celebrate, except the children forced into domestic slavery”). He uses the second-person pronoun nine times in his first paragraph alone to extend this irony. Setting up a division between “you and us,” “their and we,” he hits home his message that restavecs are “observers instead of participants in their own society,” forcing a recognition of the potential differences between the reader’s experiences and those of the narrator, and demanding an effort of connection across difference.
In spite of the struggle to find a clean psychological turning point from slavery to freedom, slaves look for a solution. For some of the narrators in section 5, a philosophy of freedom began in slavery and was the driving force behind their self-liberation. “Liberty was a thing that was necessary, that all the slaves must dream of. . . . I always believed that I had to be free, and I think that helped me to escape,” writes Salma. For others, like Ramphal and Tina, the solution is the antislavery movement and their own abolitionist work after liberation. And the narrators ask for the reader’s involvement in that antislavery movement. “I want you to read this attentively,” writes Salma, addressing the reader directly. Tina and William call for a shift from the reading experience to action. “You have to speak to people, to let them know,” instructs William. “Now that you have the knowledge, what will you do with it?” asks Tina.
The narrators in section 5 also insist on their own definitions of slavery and freedom. Choti defines slavery as “doing all the work . . . and not getting any assistance or any monetary benefit.” For Ramphal, slavery means never being “free to . . . make our own choices,” no longer being “individuals.” Equally, Choti defines freedom as the opportunity to “study” and “learn.” For Shyamkali it means “we work if we want to, and not if we don’t want to,” and for Sumara it means “we earn our own livelihood.” And for Ramphal, freedom is “the fact that I can control my own mind, my own thoughts, my own movements” and have the chance to think ahead, “to not only live as I want to live but hope for a better future.” That better future began in Ramphal’s case with his new community. After liberation, Ramphal and other quarry slaves from the state of Uttar Pradesh, in India, founded the village of Azad Nagar, which means “the land that is free.” In early 2006, an election was announced in rural Uttar Pradesh, and ninety-nine former slaves from the region surrounding Azad Nagar ran for office. Two weeks later, seventy-nine had been elected, including thirty-one women. “If you just stretch your eyes one day,” notes Ramphal of Azad Nagar, “you might catch a glimpse of it.”
Ramphal imagines emancipation “one day.” Other narrators echo his phrase. Salma remembers telling her mother “that one day I would be free.” Miguel remembers thinking that “one day we’re going to have the opportunity.” And Christina told herself that “one day everything is going to be OK” and prayed “for one day to come when I could be free.” This “one day” in modern slave narratives is a reminder that those who remain enslaved now face what might be termed “a long Juneteenth.” The Juneteenth holiday, still celebrated by some black communities, marks the day when news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached the people of Texas—on June 19, 1865. In the early 1960s, Atlanta civil rights campaigners wore “Juneteenth” buttons to insist that true emancipation was still delayed—by a century, rather than two and a half years. And now, in the twenty-first century, the delay in ending slavery within the United States and around the world has become even longer. As Ralph Ellison put it in his novel Juneteenth, which he wrote throughout in the 1960s, the idea that slavery is over is “a gaudy illusion.”
The “one day” of a final Juneteenth has not yet arrived. But as we read these new slave narratives, we might remember the achievements of the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement. On the eve of the American Revolution, few Americans could envision a world without slavery. Yet, one hundred years later, slavery did become illegal in the United States. This achievement stemmed from the collective protest of countless slaves, ex-slaves, and abolitionists—from a crusade that created a new framework for equality and fostered a culture of dissent. The Juneteenth holiday reminds us that legal change is not enough. By seeking, achieving, and redefining freedom, the narrators in this book envision a new, global, and final Juneteenth.
© Cornell University Press


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