Survivors of Modern Slavery Speak

Survivors of Slavery

This week our featured book is Survivors of Slavery: Modern-Day Slave Narratives by Laura T. Murphy. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. Today, we have a guest post from Laura T. Murphy, “Survivors of Modern Slavery Speak.”

Survivors of Modern Slavery Speak
Laura T. Murphy

This month, the Urban Institute released a government-funded report on “Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities” (check out their interactive feature, “The Hustle” as well). The report attempts to describe human trafficking by the numbers, providing the data that begins to answer the question that so many people ask: “How serious is human trafficking in the United States?”

The researchers interviewed sex traffickers, pimps, sex workers, child pornographers, prosecutors, and federal law enforcement agents to determine how big the profits are for human trafficking in seven U.S. cities. What they found was that pimps make between $5,000 and $32,833 a week. And the underground sex economy accounted for between $39.9 and $290 million dollars, depending on which city is raking in the bucks. The Urban Institute provided the data that cities governments and non-profits have been seeking to be able to justify exerting energy and expending resources to try to slow down the most exploitative sectors of the sex trade. Furthermore, the interviews conducted revealed widespread physical and psychological abuse within the industry.

What the Urban Institute research shows us is that listening carefully to the voices of those involved in trafficking is integral to better addressing the issue in all its complexity. Even as we demand better records and more data on the sex trade and other forms of trafficking, those numbers can only give us an abstract portrait of the industry.

Survivors of Slavery: Modern-Day Slave Narratives puts the voices of the survivors of human trafficking – people who were genuinely enslaved in these underground economies – at the center of the discussion. The forty first-person stories of human trafficking collected in this book allow us to better understand how the downturn in the global economy has affected people’s material conditions and work opportunities, how young people and adults become vulnerable to traffickers, how difficult it is to speak out against employers who are violent and manipulative, how escape can become a possibility and then a reality, and how victims become survivors.

The people who tell their stories in this collection of “modern-day slave narratives” are the Frederick Douglasses, the Solomon Northups of our time. They tell us about their unique experiences of slavery, while they shed light on the larger institutions that support the illicit trade in human labor.

As Minh Dang, a survivor of sex trafficking from California asks, “Are we too eager to “take action” that we forget that sitting and listening are actions?”

When we listen, we hear Shamere McKenzie’s voice tell us how pimps lure smart American women into unconsensual sex work:
“I will never forget the day I met my trafficker. It was a cold but sunny afternoon in January 2005. As I crossed over Ninety-Sixth Street in Manhattan, New York, this car was approaching me. I stopped to look if it was my friend, who had a similar car, but this man came out of the car and introduced himself. Although he was not the typical guy I would talk to, he was extremely polite. […]When he learned about [how I couldn’t afford my college tuition], he immediately offered the money for me to go back to school. He said all I had to do was dance, and he would make sure I would go back to school.”

We hear Given Kachepa, a Zambian who was trafficked as a young boy to sing in a choir, explain how foreign nationals can be lured to America with promises of work: “In Zambia, it is easy to convince people with hopes of a better life and future. Who would not want to come to America? When you live on less than a dollar per day, America is heaven. Sometimes even when people know there are sacrifices ahead, they are enticed to go because of the promises.”

We also learn about the courage it takes for people to decide to resist their captors and flee together, as “Miguel” and his co-workers did in Florida: “That’s when it was the brother of Rodriguez, he came in, and everyone knows that he’s the kind of guy, he’s got guns. . . He came in, and he said, ‘I don’t want any of this shit going on. If I catch any of you motherfuckers messing around like this, I’m gonna kick all your asses.’ That’s when we were all scared. We were thinking, ‘Well, what can we do?’ and I said, ‘I can’t take it. This is when I’ve got to go. We got to get over. Now is our time to leave. And I can’t take any of this slavery anymore.’ This is where I was. Mad, but I was scared and surprised all at the same time.”

As the Walk Free Foundation determined last year, there are 29.8 million people enslaved in the world today – in sex work, in agricultural labor, in domestic servitude, even in boys’ choirs. While these huge numbers are important for us to conceive of the problem, even more important is the work we do to listen and share the individual stories of those who are enslaved.

Survivors of Slavery provides us with a unique opportunity to understand the ways survivors engage the experience of enslavement and trauma through writing and storytelling. Modern-day slave narratives perform the same activist ambitions as those nineteenth century narratives did; they encourage antislavery activism and educate unsuspecting Americans about the true perils of forced labor. They urge readers to take action to ensure that the laws that now make slavery illegal all over the world are enforced and that people who are exploited are protected. These modern-day slave narratives are a call to listen and a call to action.

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