Ron Soodalter is a historian, folklorist, and lecturer. He is also the author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader, and has written articles on the historic and modern slave trade, the Civil
War, and the American West. A respected Lincolnian scholar, he serves
on the Board of the Abraham Lincoln Institute. Most recently, he teamed up with Kevin Bales in authoring The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today, which will be published by UC Press in May 2009. Below, he talks about his research and the inspirations for his book on slavery.
By: Ron Soodalter
As a student of history, I’d always assumed – as do most Americans – that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. It was only after writing most of a book on the ante-bellum slave trade that I stumbled on an account of slavery – in present-day America! My first response, a common one, as it turns out, was denial: “No way. Slavery hasn’t existed here since Lincoln’s time.”
Only after extensive research did I discover that slavery has always existed on this continent, from the days of its European discovery right up to the present day. Slaves can be found – or more accurately, not found – in all 50 states, working on construction crews, as fruit pickers and domestics, factory, restaurant, and sweatshop laborers, and victims of sexual exploitation. They are hidden in plain sight, lured here by traffickers, who promise them opportunity – an education, a better job, a chance to support or send for their families back home. Some are smuggled across the border by a single “coyote,” while many more enter through our airports daily, with papers provided by crime families or syndicates, and sometimes our own government. Once inside the country, their dreams disappear, and a life of slavery begins.
Nor are U.S. citizens exempt from this affliction. The number of children and young people at risk of being taken from their own cities, towns and neighborhoods, according to the feds, is in the hundreds of thousands. It really is that insidious.
This is the kind of knowledge you can’t “unlearn”; the only question is, what do you do with it once you have it? My friend Kevin Bales and I determined that the most effective path was to write a book, to make available to the reader information that took us considerable time and experience to acquire. Focusing specifically on our own country proved to be a daunting task for us both, but one which eventually gave us a complete picture of all aspects of slavery in today’s America. There is a world of difference between being aware of slavery on an intellectual level and actually meeting and speaking with people whose lives have been forever changed by it. It was humbling, and it brought a visceral awareness to the project. And it gave a whole new dimension to my view of America’s historic slavery; while I had studied and written about it for years, the impact had always been buffered by the distance of time. Since coming to know survivors, and those who work daily to help them, I will never be able to look at slavery in the same way again.
The book that came out of our experience, The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today, is part tell-all, part how-to-fix-it, and part stories of actual slavery. And it lays out a plan for Americans – for you and me – to take an active part in the fight against slavery. It’s not as daunting a task as you might think. Heck, just by reading these few paragraphs, you now know more about slavery in our country today than most Americans!
We tend to think of ourselves as the country where slavery has no place; it will take a lot of work and dedication to make it so. The first step is to learn as much about it as possible, so that you’ll recognize it, and know what to do about it.