Slave Narratives and the Pimp in the Shadows

The Ending Slavery MOOC on Future Learn, presented by the University of Nottingham, covers quite a bit of information about the history of slavery worldwide and the reality of modern slavery.

While the MOOC was extremely well done (I highly recommend it) there was one question in week four that caught my attention because it’s a good example of missing research. Assignment 4.8 focuses on the Slave Narrative as a literary tradition and includes a link to the Characteristics of the Slave Narrative, as an example of literary interpretation and research that has been done on historic narratives (e.g.: antislavery writings completed in the United States during the civil war era). The assignment then instructs students to examine modern slave narratives and consider them from a literary perspective – are there commonalities in structure?

It’s a standard academic exercise and a good way to examine the information from another angle, which can be extremely useful when trying to perform problem solving exercises. A problem solving example: activists who are trying to figure out a way to address a specific problem facing slaves or former slaves in a specific area can force their brains to stop following the same unproductive maze and take some time to analyze narratives from people in other areas, looking for literary commonalities, in the hopes that it will provide some kind of unexpected insight into their own immediate problem.

So far so good.

The problem that I see is not what is there but what is NOT there.

Go into any large-chain bookstore and there will be an entire section devoted to sensationalist books covering ‘current events’ and ‘conspiracy theories’ of all kinds. Usually, this sections will also contain equally sensationalist ‘biographies’ of people who have survived harrowing experiences or done incredibly awful things. This is how the biography of a young woman sold into sexual slavery sits on the same shelf as the biography of a serial killer who lured, raped, tortured and murdered several women. Usually, the biography of the slavery victim has a cover that is vaguely BDSM erotic – clearly targeting people who like the idea of owning a slave.

Search through the movies offerings in any on-demand video provider (e.g.: Netflix) and similar ‘documentaries’ about people in slavery (particularly sexual slavery) are available, frequently with similarly vaguely BDSM erotic advertising graphics. Years ago, I watched one that supposedly covered the lives of woman trapped in sexual slavery all over the world. It DID include interviews with women who were enslaved all over the world, along with pornography-level video of some of those same women performing sexual acts with clients. At every point in the ‘documentary’ the shadow of the pimps/owners hovered over the words of the women being interviewed. It was LITERALLY a 1.5-hour infomercial geared toward men who are best described by the The Bloodhound Gang song The Lap Dance Is So Much Better When The Stripper Is Cryin’ (YouTube).

I’ve seen the same thing occurring within news stories. In 2009, after the economy crashed, every news outlet (big and small) was publishing/broadcasting stories about women fighting over jobs as strippers and prostitutes. The sex industry had it’s pick of recent college grads because these women has student loans to pay! There was one in particular that was on a national news program that looked exactly like the documentary described above, but wrapped up in a 3-minute news story and keeping the sex acts just barely visible or highlighted through ‘interviews.’

I made the decision to refrain from including a link to the news story, the title of the documentary or examples of sensationalist slave biographies because the old adage any press is good press is a statement of truth and these people don’t deserve the traffic.

Having said that, the discussion of slave narratives MUST include this form of exploitation.There are distinct differences in the type of information selected and the manner in which it is presented – there’s a lot of literary ground to cover.

Also, a biography or narrative can be a powerful tool in the hands of antislavery activists. It can be an equally powerful tool in the hands of pimps, slave owners and human traffickers.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has done this research. If I am wrong about this, I invite (encourage!) you to correct me on this point and/or provide recommended readings in the comments below.

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