Contemporary Slavery: Popular Rhetoric and Political Practice

By Walker, Barrington | Law & Society Review, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Slavery: Popular Rhetoric and Political Practice


Walker, Barrington, Law & Society Review


Contemporary Slavery: Popular Rhetoric and Political Practice. By Annie Bunting and Joel Quirk (Eds.). Toronto and Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017.

Barrington Walker, Department of History, Queen's University

Slavery is something that I have thought about, read about, and taught for quite some time. I teach a course at Queen's University in Kingston Ontario on Slavery in North America from the colonial era until 1865. I also teach courses that deal exclusively with or touch upon aspects of the Black experiences in Canada in the broader context of Canadian Racial State formation. One of the things I have not done as well as I might have is to acknowledge that there are many types of coerced labor and trafficking-forms of slavery in a word-that exist today.

This is one of the many things that this collection does extremely well. It amply shows that slavery in the post-1926 era is still very much with us. Although there is a broad consensus that trafficking exists, there is a general reluctance to talk about the endurance of forms, patterns, legacies, and iterations of slavery into the present and this fine collection has alerted me to the importance of signaling that singularly important fact and reflecting upon its significance. I also appreciated the discussion around disaggregating the discussion to look at several themes and how they existed- often uneasily-under the rhetoric of "ending slavery" (22). The discussion of the multiple rhetorics of anti-slavery is also enlightening as it pulls apart the nuances and complexities of the topic that are often flattened in typical conversations and policy discussions. This book is divided into three parts and 12 chapters. Part 1, Chapters 1-4 deal with the causes of contemporary slavery; Part 2, Chapters 5-8 examine patterns of rhetoric; and Part 3, Chapters 9-11 deal with today's forms of slavery in practice. The books' perspective is global, traversing sites in Africa, Asia, and the United States.

This is a well-curated collection that very effectively grounds the subject matter both empirically and conceptually. As an historian, there were several things that struck me about this book, however. The first is the use of the terms "contemporary" and "modern" to signal that this collection is rooted in the present. It is used to create a temporal break between the past and the present day and perhaps to distinguish the iterations of slavery that exist now from their predecessors in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. A few things strike me about this. First is the idea that slavery is now widely considered to be some sort of "relic"-to borrow the language used in the preface-that needed to be exhumed from the past as it is buried beneath silences. Perhaps, and I agree that is the case for a wide swath of the North American population, but such a claim, I argue, is generated from a rather privileged standpoint in some respects-and it reflects a very particular understanding of the trajectory of slavery and its complicated legacies.

Second, historians and Black Studies scholars locate modernity- the modern-race, capitalism, colonialism, and its unprecedented displacements, asynchronous time, and etcetera in the very period that this collection is writing against. In other words, in some respects the invocation of the modern is a little odd and perhaps somewhat limited (in fairness, Joel Quirk gestures to this in ftn 53 of the introductory chapter citing a piece of his that explores the relationship between the reticence to discuss contemporary slavery to facilitate this rhetorical dodge. Third, the scholars that I have in mind have spent a lot of time thinking about how the modernity that was birthed on the slave ship created the conditions for slavery and its "afterlife" throughout the West. …

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