Does it frustrate anyone else out there when slavery is spoken about as a past institution, limited to a single era in history, a mere “once upon a time?” It’s a common misconception, but one that the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, seeks to shatter in its new exhibit, called “Invisible: Slavery Today.” The Freedom Center, which primarily focuses on our nation’s affair with slavery prior to the Civil War, has added a new and permanent exhibit that links our past to our present with a spotlight on human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Broken up into three parts, the exhibit looks at various forms of enslavement in today’s world, slavery’s contemporary causes and extent and, optimistically, the ways in which slavery is currently being fought. After learning all about the more historical facets of the slave trade, museum-goers will come to understand the practice is not only ongoing, but widespread, and perhaps find inspiration to become a modern-day abolitionist.
A few weeks back, I was reminded of how important it is to relate historical slavery to modern-day slavery while watching the documentary Traces of the Trade. The film examines the DeWolf family’s prominent role in the Triangle Trade while living in New England (as opposed to the more predictable South) and discusses the meaning of that legacy. And for a thoughtful look at race relations in America, it’s terrific. But for a movie that so clearly could and should have connected the dots between the slavery of yesteryear with the slavery of today, it was, sad to say, an epic fail.
For me personally, Traces only reinforced the false notion that slavery was confined to an ugly – but limited – period in our history. And in their struggle to take a lemon of a family history and make lemonade, the characters spent way too much time whining about the lemon’s sour taste. Looking back at slaves of the past and thoroughly acknowledging their horror is vitally important, yes, but failing to acknowledge that similar horrors still exist for millions every day seems a gross oversight, at best. At worst, it’s a complete disservice to those who suffered their role as a human commodity in the Atlantic slave trade.
Our Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, shouldn’t be thought of as dead copy. Check out the Freedom Center’s “Invisible” exhibit, or pass on the word to Ohioans and its visitors. And continue to be mindful that slavery can’t yet be relegated to history books. Sign Change.org petitions to end human trafficking, such as this one, which tells the state of Mississippi that when it comes to slavery, it still has a lot of work to do.