Art: Enabling Abolition

Contemporary slavery made visible at the Freedom Center

Feb 28, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Joe Lamb

Terrie Puckett, manager of the Freedom Center's Slavery Institute, is the curator of Invisible, an exhibition designed to shed light on modern-day slavery.

Drive out Reading Road and keep going about three miles past Xenia and you'll arrive in Wilberforce, Ohio, where they know about the English abolitionist William Wilberforce.

Yet even the Welsh actor who plays him in a recent film hadn't heard of him before getting the role. Now that Amazing Grace has opened worldwide, many more of us will know who he is and the singular role he played in ending the British slave trade. What you still might not know is that the film is only the most recently visible element of an international effort to focus attention on contemporary slavery and recruit modern abolitionists.

Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is playing a special part in that effort by creating a unique exhibition titled Invisible: Slavery Today. Its timing coincides not only with Black History Month but also the 200th anniversary of Wilberforce's achievement of the British Parliament's passage of the Anti-Slavery Act.

Wilberforce died a month before he could see slavery banned completely in Britain. But, as Invisible makes clear, slavery has not vanished from the earth.

You enter Invisible through a blackened passageway of suspended, 20-foot-long, semi-transparent black banners with human faces silk-screened on them. Brief complementary texts identify each face.

No names are given at this point, just ages and countries of origin and the conditions of their slavery, what each was promised and what was received.

For example: A 15-year-old American, enslaved in Michigan, promised nothing (her enslavement was coerced), who received sexual, psychological and physical abuse, torture, her dog killed and her family threatened with physical harm. That's right, Michigan, U.S.A. Of the six faces confronting you in this entryway, one is American and half were enslaved here (the others in California and Maryland). It is estimated that of the more than 10 million people enslaved in the world today, 17,500 are foreign nationals trafficked into the U.S. for the purposes of enslavement (a figure which does not include the trafficking of Americans within the U.S.).

But didn't slavery disappear here in the 19th century following the Emancipation Proclamation? Isn't this why the Freedom Center exists, to remind us of what the institution of slavery was and the successful effort to eradicate it? In a word: no.

When many people hear the word slavery they conjure up images of chains, whips, auction blocks and human ownership: What is now termed traditional or "chattel slavery." Chattel slavery still exists in the world, particularly in Niger, Mauritania and the Sudan.

The working definition of slavery employed by Invisible is that of the International Labour Organization and is essentially any non-voluntary work or servitude exacted under menace of penalty. Most contemporary slavery can loosely be grouped into three overlapping categories: forced labor, bonded labor and servitude. Some of the forms this takes include agricultural work (cocoa, coffee, sugar, rice, tomatoes), manufacturing (clothing, textiles, bricks), labor (gold and diamond mining, commercial fishing), mail-order brides, sexual tourism, domestic work (home and child care) and children soldiers. Two of these — diamond mining and children soldiers — are depicted in another recent film, Blood Diamond. And enslaved individuals can be found anywhere in the world, possibly even in your neighborhood.

The exhibition explains how these conditions occur and operate and their effect on those subjected to them.

The black-backgrounded wall panels slowly turn to purple as you move through the exhibits, displaying slavery facts, myths, reasons and specific instances. There are several interactive stations at which you can test your ability to plant rice sticks, weave on a loom, scrub a floor or identify common household items produced by slaves. Several large video screens punctuate the exhibition to enhance the experience through the stories told by those actually enslaved. Deeper into the exhibition, we learn the names of the people whose faces we encountered at the beginning.

The last part of Invisible is about empowering opposition. You learn about Fair Trade Certification and RugMark and what corporations are doing to discourage slavery. The possible benefits of boycotts are weighed. And two computer terminals allow you to receive information about fighting slavery and sign a petition being circulated worldwide. Wall racks contain information about the Freedom Center's partner organizations in creating Invisible, which include Break the Chain, Child Voice International, Franciscans International, Free the Children, Free the Slaves, International Justice Mission, RugMark, TransFair USA and the Cincinnati Justice Project. (Much of this information is also accessible on the Center's Web site, invisible/.)

A final video presentation encourages young people to become modern-day abolitionists. The campaign is called The Amazing Change and was launched by Waden Media, the exceptional production company behind Amazing Grace (and Ray). It's partnered by many of the same organizations supporting Invisible. There currently are about 50,000 signatures on the Petition to Abolish Slavery but it is hoped to obtain 390,000. Why 390,000? Because that is the number William Wilberforce secured from his countrymen 200 years ago.

While visiting Invisible I ran into John Pepper, Freedom Center CEO (and former Procter & Gamble CEO and Disney board chair). He told me the center is broadening its reach and relevance while maintaining contact with its roots in Cincinnati and the story of the Underground Railroad.

It's a story of bi-racial cooperation in opposition to injustice at a time when slavery was overt and the Railroad was hidden. Now slavery is often invisible. But modern abolitionists are exposing it and standing proudly in the light themselves.

Invisible: Slavery Today has been extended through March 11 at the The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.