Since the racist murder of George Floyd earlier this year, slavery’s remembrance and legacy is a topic of great significance in the contemporary world. The ongoing pain that slavery and racism causes for black people all over the world is palpable and often made worse by the refusal of those in positions of power to acknowledge the systems which enable such inequalities to perpetuate. When I set out to write a book about the ways that Americans’ conceptualisation of slavery and forced labour changed in the aftermath of the Civil War, I knew that I would think as much about our contemporary world as the historical one. Contention over the definition of what constitutes slavery is rife in slavery studies today, as the term ‘modern slavery’ has acquired a meaning that is slippery and mutable. Its deployment results in heated disagreements with opponents accusing one another of perpetuating systems of labour abuse by either confirming or denying that a form of labour counts as ‘slavery’.
This rhetorical manoeuvring is mirrored by that in the period after the American Civil War in books and newspapers in the US and Britain. Then, many authors were concerned to protect and maintain the racial hierarchies in which, despite the spreading illegality of slavery as a labour form, labourers from certain racial and ethnic backgrounds would continue to be made easily available to bosses from different backgrounds. A denial that labour abuses counted as slavery often triggered a geopolitical focus that encouraged imperial domination by either Americans or Europeans. For example, in accordance with the racist norms of the time, Africans were deemed incapable of productive work without coercion. However, in some cases where Americans or British authors identified slavery and ‘called it out’ as we now say, they did so to further their own strategic needs, rather than from a sense of humanitarianism. This happened, for example, in the 1890s in the Philippines, where the warmongers within the United States government used the existence of slavery-like practices to justify their military intervention in the region, to save the victims of enslavement. This justification was not new but, rather, was one learned by imitating British practice in its imperial contexts.
Following the Civil War, the United States hoped that slavery in far-flung places would become the focus of global anti-slavery campaigning because the nation failed to abolish slavery within its own borders. Its continued existence, sanctioned in the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which abolished slavery except as a punishment for crime, meant that heinous systems of convict labour and leasing emerged, tainting and further racializing the US criminal justice system – from which it is yet still to recover.
This depressing account of the persistence of the nefarious manipulations of definitions of slavery can seem overwhelming. It is important to remember that, just as prior to the Civil War itself, resistance from within the African American community and from their white allies significantly contributed to mitigating harm, raising awareness and providing a language with which to challenge the continued existence of slavery throughout the world. My book argues that those voices must be foregrounded if we are to truly understand America’s remembrance of and legacy of slavery in a global context.