What is it like to be a slave in modern society? To really answer this question, it would be best to hear it from someone who has actually experienced it, rather than get an intellectual treatise from a scholar who has studied it. Activists Zoe Trodd and Kevin Bales have compiled first-person narratives by slaves and former slaves in their anthology, “To Plead Our Own Cause.” No dry manifesto, this book tells the harrowing reality of slavery from those who would know the most about it.
Modern human slavery is a subject that seems to have only recently been brought to the attention of general culture. The film “Taken” featuring actor Liam Neeson is one popular example; in it, an American girl is trafficked into sex slavery when on vacation in Paris. Needless to say, the pervasiveness of modern slavery is more subtle than locking up your daughters to keep the predators at bay. The narratives that are portrayed show how broad and widespread the specter of modern slavery really is. Not just simply confined to Third World countries, and not just limited to agricultural and sex slavery, this book shows the myriad ways it pervades modern life.
The book is not just confined to how and why people are enslaved. The perspectives explore the reality of why people feel too terrorized to escape their fate, much the way victims of domestic violence are afraid of leaving their abusers. They explain the psychological violence used to control them, and how in many ways it is more terrorizing than any physical abuse. Freedom sounds wonderful, and is exactly what all of these slaves want for themselves. But reintegration into modern civilization after years of terror is not as easy as it sounds. Escaped slaves explain how freedom creates its own form of crisis: slaves have learned terror and not the nuances of modern life. Everyone’s life is difficult, but for escaped slaves who have not had the benefit of cultural education while they were entrapped, modern civilization creates a whole host of problems not anticipated in the first heady days of freedom.
Other than several introductory paragraphs, the editors are absent from the book, letting the narratives speak from themselves. In allowing the voices of the enslaved to speak, the book gives these people a voice to the exact thing that was designed to take away their humanity. Slavery is something that can be intellectualized as happening elsewhere, to someone else. Hearing the frank details from individual people does something scary: it shows that real individuals are the ones who are enslaved, people who could be anyone: your friend, your sister, yourself. Human slavery is designed to render people into chattel, and dehumanizes the slaver by having him or her see others as less than human. But by telling their stories, those enslaved are given a right to their words. Silent no more, perhaps by speaking, these people can regain a sense of what was always there: their humanity.