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Of Abolition, Past and Present

March 19, 2014

The subject of slavery abolition has been on my mind a lot lately, thanks to a history book I am reading, A Scattered People: An American Family Moves West, the masterpiece of a film 12 Years a Slave, and this quiz that enables you to approximate your current “slavery footprint.”

A scattered people

A Scattered People is a fascinating account of 4-5 family branches that move west from the American East coast and intermarry.  The author, Gerald McFarland (a historian who is a descendant of these families) tells their story and how their lives fit into the context of American history at large and what was going on in that day.  I am currently reading about the stage in which the families were involved in the abolition movement and the Civil War.  In the decades leading up to the Civil War, abolition was the movement going up against colonization.  The idea behind colonization was that sending blacks back to Africa would allow slavery to be phased out of American life without having to integrate black and white society.  It was much preferred to abolition because whites in the both the north and south saw (and still see, in some pockets of American culture?) blacks as inferior.  I think that abolition was also more financially devastating to the south than colonization.  It is inspiring to see the sacrifices the abolitionists made for the sake of the cause, even if I don’t always approve of the manner in which they fought for it.

slave11n-9-web12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in the north (coincidentally, in the area where my parents now have their residence) in the 1840s who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South.  The movie is based on Northup’s memoir. The story is horrifying in a very realistic way.  I have been educated of African American slavery since a young age, but there is nothing like a realistic depiction of it to stir your guts.  In the end, it was a Canadian white man who took the risk to help Northup gain back his freedom.

I also took a quiz at to determine approximately how many slaves in developing countries support my current lifestyle.  The result was NOT cool- 60 slaves.  60 slaves to make my clothes, make my exercise and sports gear, harvest my coffee and chocolate, make my soap, mine the minerals for my makeup (which I don’t wear much, but it still is in my bathroom cabinet), harvest the fruit I eat, make my digital technology …. and many other things.  It is very disturbing.  Lately, a lot of attention has been given to sex trafficking, allowing those of us who don’t participate in commercial sex and porn to think “I am not the problem.”  But there are slaves in way more industries than the sex industry.

slavery-footprint-1Back in the days before mass international trade and industrialization, people made their own soap or bought it locally, grew their own food, and considered eating an orange, banana or piece of candy a luxury.    Are slaves really paying the price for these luxuries?  For this easy western lifestyle?  Should I be returning to that difficult lifestyle of producing all my own goods or getting them locally or from ethical sources?  Is that even possible?  I want to start using coconut oil in my cooking because it is healthy- is this mostly produced by slaves too? Am I really creating a demand for slavery in the developing world?  I don’t want to be responsible for slavery.

But then, it wasn’t changes in consumer demand that ultimately abolished slavery in America.  Rather, it was a legal change from the federal government that resulted in devastation of the South from Civil War and emancipation of their work force.  It was legal change that finally allowed the Civil Rights movement to win its victory.

What all this tells me is that abolishing slavery today must not neglect the legal aspect of this struggle.  We should do whatever we can not to drive consumer demand for slavery.  But we need to do both.  The Civil Rights movement was inaugurated with a boycott, which “got the ball rolling” and finally got the attention of the top law makers.

In any case, fighting this requires sacrifice of those of us who are free.  It did then, and it does now.

Thoughts?  Do you know anything about this subject that I have not mentioned here?  What can we all be doing to bring more justice to this world?  Each individual soul of a person is valuable.  Even if we can’t eradicate slavery, each human being we free is worth saving.

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