Interviewer: How did you first become aware of modern-day slavery and human trafficking? Soodalter: By accident. While I was looking for a suitable topic for my Afterword in Hanging Captain Gordon, I came across a cover article on modern slavery in the New York Times’ Sunday Magazine. I’d had no idea, and it blew me away. It was a short next step to relate the phenomenon of slavery today to the activities of the eighteenth and nineteenth century slave traders.
I. What does slavery in America today look like? Where would we find it? S. Slavery in America takes many forms. Whereas the pre-Civil War form of slavery was both legal and public, today’s slavery is illegal and hidden. And while the ante-bellum slave cost as much as $1200 – the equivalent of $50,000 in today’s currency – a slave today can be bought for as little as $100, making that person not only affordable, but also disposable. Today’s slavery is not specific to gender, ethnicity, race or type. American’s slave can be found – or, more accurately, not found – in all 50 states, working as farmhands, domestics, sweatshop and factory laborers, gardeners, restaurant and construction workers, and victims of sexual exploitation. Where an opportunity exists for exploitation, there’s a good chance there is a hidden slave.
I.I would imagine this is a very emotional subject; how did you respond to this? S. There is a world of difference between being aware of slavery on an intellectual level and actually meeting and speaking with people whose lives have been forever changed by it. It was humbling, and it brought a visceral awareness to the project. And it informed my view of America’s historic slavery; while I had studied and written about it for years, the impact was buffered by the distance of time. Since coming to know survivors, and those who work daily to help them, I will never be able to look at slavery the same way again.
I. How does slavery play a part in our everyday lives? S. Many facets of our daily lives are impacted by slavery and the products of slavery. There’s a chance that the clothes you wear and the food you eat have been tainted by slavery. Cotton, that symbol of slavery in the pre-Civil War South, is now being picked by slaves on three continents. The orange juice and tomato you might have had with your burger today could very well have come to you from a Mexican or Guatemalan immigrant working under coercion. The “oriental” rug in your living room could have been woven in India, Nepal, or Pakistan by one of a hundred thousand child slaves whose fingers tie the tiny knots so prized by consumers. Cell phones and laptops require an element called tantalum, which comes from an ore mined in the Congo – often by slaves. This doesn’t imply that all rugs, cotton shirts, cell phones, oranges are the products of slave labor; but some are, and we just never know. It’s that insidious.
I. Why has slavery flourished? S. Sadly, today’s form of human trafficking and slavery lives in the shadows; neither the general public nor most of our police and government officials have any idea how to recognize it, or what to do once they have.
I. We are a free country. Why aren’t slaves able to escape? S. There are several reasons why today’s slaves can’t escape. Many foreign nationals don’t speak English. They often suffer a deep sense of shame – and denial – regarding their situation. They fear for their lives, and those of their families in the home country. They often feel the obligation to pay off their “debt,” regardless how fraudulent or inflated. They are disoriented by their surroundings, and wouldn’t know where to go – or to whom – should they run away. Their traffickers program them to fear police and immigration officials. And sometimes, they actually come to identify with their keepers.
I. Are there any American slaves or are most slaves foreigners trafficked into this country? S. There are, indeed, slaves taken from among our own population. Several sources, including the federal government, places in the hundreds of thousands the number of American citizens – mostly children and young people – at risk of being caught in slavery annually. The type of slavery seen as most prevalent among U.S. citizens is sexual exploitation.
I. Why is it so difficult for law enforcement officers to stop slavery that’s going on right in their own jurisdictions? S. Of the few cases of slavery uncovered in America, only around one-third are as a result of government action. On the local and state levels, there has been woefully little done to train and educate our law enforcement agencies on the subject of modern-day slavery. The one type of slavery with which law enforcement seems at all familiar is sexual exploitation. Yet sadly, if a policeman looks at an underage prostitute, he most likely has no idea that she could be in a coercive situation. She is arrested, and out of fear, she says nothing. And so, she is victimized three times: by the trafficker, the johns who rape her daily, and the system that should be educated as to how to rescue and support her, but instead, ensures that the cycle continues.
I. You say that 40 states have anti-human trafficking laws. Why hasn’t this stopped the problem? S. No one form of slavery is more horrific than another. Yet, although some 40 states have passed anti-human trafficking laws, most of them focus mainly, if not entirely, on the issue of prostitution and sex slavery, and ignore or downplay the broader spectrum. Also, the state laws mainly concentrate on catching and punishing the traffickers, while ignoring the vital issue of long-term support and counseling for the survivors. Finally, despite passing laws promising the allocation of millions of dollars in anti-trafficking funding, frequently the money is never paid. Talk’s cheap; without the funding to back up the promises, the laws are worthless.
I. What do you think will happen to the slavery agenda with the new administration? S. While the Bush Administration’s response to the issue of slavery in America was inadequate, and focused almost entirely on sexual exploitation, it’s too soon to tell how the Obama Administration will address the problem. It is, however, encouraging that both the President and Secretary of State Clinton have made public statements that reflect a concern and an awareness regarding human trafficking and slavery in America.
I. What will it take to end slavery once and for all? S. It’s essential that Americans are made aware that this blight exists in our country today. Without an educated public, there is no hope of eliminating the problem. Through ignorance, and worse yet, indifference, we enable slavery. America was born with the congenital disease of slavery and, legal or not, it has never left us. While we were looking the other way, slavery in America evolved into a whole new beast that lives in darkness among us, and feeds on ignorance and misery. Only through our awareness, our concern, and our commitment can it be driven out. We find it both challenging and exhilarating to think that we can be the generation to end this nation-long affliction.
Interviewer: The Gordon story is unique in American history. What was it that first attracted you to it? Soodalter: The sheer drama of the story. I was an undergrad in the late 60's, and very little had actually been written about Gordon. Diving into the primary sources had all the aspects of a treasure hunt. At the outset, all I really knew was that President Lincoln had resisted considerable political pressure, and allowed a young sea captain to hang for slave trading.
I: Did you have sympathy for Gordon? S: Initially, yes. I'd come from a comfortable white middle-class home, and although a student of American history, my exposure to the horrors of the slave trade was academic, not visceral. In Gordon, I saw a loving husband and father dying at the end of a rope, and it felt tragic.
I: And now? S: My sympathy - and my outrage - lie with the millions of humans that Gordon and his ilk unfeelingly ripped from their homes and destroyed. In Gordon's time, there was an attrition rate of over 17% aboard slave ships. Of every 100 captives chained below deck, 17 died. And this doesn't encompass the vast numbers who died in bondage after the slavers delivered them. The true tragedy lies in our government's unforgivably lax approach to enforcing the slave trade laws, in its refusal to cooperate with Great Britain when cooperation would have meant ending the slave traffic decades earlier, and in letting men like Gordon evade punishment as a matter of policy. Gordon died for the thousands of slavers who pursued their careers untroubled by the rule of law.
I: You have said that you are an admirer of Abraham Lincoln. And yet, he stated publicly that he considered blacks inferior to whites, and that he would not attempt to interfere with slavery in the southern United States. How do you reconcile your admiration with these issues? S: I think it is a common pitfall that we tend to judge history's personages by today's moral standards. Lincoln was a product of his time. His racial views were honed and tempered by where he was, and when. Bear in mind, though, that he welcomed Frederick Douglass to the White House, and spoke with him as an equal. I think Lincoln's perceptions on race altered during the course of his presidency. As to his refusal to interfere with slavery, Lincoln hated the whole idea of slavery, but it was not prohibited by the Constitution, and he was a strict constructionist. And it's important to remember that his main objective was to keep the Union together.
I: Lincoln wasn't the only one to make allowances for slavery while working to end the slave trade. Didn't the prosecutor in the Gordon case make similar statements? S: Delafield Smith did tell the jury that he was set on hanging a slave trader, but was not an abolitionist by any means. This was a common distinction made at the time: Slavery was the social, cultural and economic way of things, but slave trading was tantamount to kidnapping. It was an artificial distinction at best, but it helped many white Americans sleep at night.
I: Were you disappointed that Smith was not a slavery-hating crusader? S: I was, at first. We all look for the man on the white horse. But I think it's enough that he did all within his power to stop the slave trade in New York and the country. In that regard, he was a crusader. I can't judge his politics from this distance, nor should I. I learned long ago that there is no such thing as an unbiased history, and I make no claims on that score, but my task was to record the events as accurately as possible, warts and all.
I: Aside from the slavers' victims, who in your story holds your sympathy? S: I would have to say Elizabeth Gordon. She was a fragile young woman - married at 15, and mother to a young child - thrust into this awful nightmare. Her days were filled with the sights and smells of the "Tombs" prison, as all hope of saving her husband gradually dissipated. I so regret that there is no record of Elizabeth after her husband's execution.
I: In writing the book, was there a particular point when you were most effected? S: Yes. I was typing along at a good clip, and I came to the point where Judge Shipman was to pronounce sentence. I stopped and read what Shipman said, then I read it aloud. I had always thought it a remarkable speech, but having become so immersed in writing the book, I found that it had renewed impact. I discovered that as I was reading it, I wept.
I: You've ended your book with a chapter on the modern-day slave trade. In what ways do you see this as an extension of the trade of Gordon's day? S: The slave trade of Gordon's time pales in comparison. Today's slave trade is infinitely more vast, more widespread, more secretive, and more difficult to eradicate than that of the 19th century. It's estimated that there are over 27 million people in bondage in the world today, with the United States a prime destination. They are brought in through our airports with false papers, or smuggled across our borders. There are slaves in nearly every state, working in a number of different jobs. They come from Asia, India, Africa, the former Soviet states, and South and Central America. It has reached epidemic proportions, and most Americans are unaware of its scope - or even its existence. Once again, the government must rally, and make a supreme effort to stomp it out. Too little is being done, as tens of thousands are trafficked into the United States every year.