Wednesday, October 7, 2015

What Are You Going To Do About It?

On September 18th, I took my English class to McClung Museum in the hopes of better illustrating literary history; what happened, however, left me with my heart hanging out. We had been reading Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, a novella from 1688 about an African prince from Corimantien (now modern Ghana) taken in slavery and sold to a plantation in South America. I’ve taught this important piece of literature for years, but I had never connected the class to the museum resources, and it seemed like a good way to keep the students engaged, especially on a Friday morning, with paper deadlines looming. Little did I know. Robert Rennie at the museum had assembled for us some eighteenth-century maps of Africa, some drawings, and three devastating objects from the museum’s collection: a gun from 1702, a ball and chain shackle from a South Carolina plantation (circa 1706) and a copy of The Wealth of Nations owned by an ancestor of Frank McClung, “Chaz.” McClung. The gun, clearly owned by a wealthy person, was probably used on a colonial plantation; the shackle most certainly was. Rennie told the students to touch the shackle, and in fact to pass the ball and chain around the room. He then pointed out that the reader of The Wealth of Nations (white, wealthy, and educated) could talk about the global economy in intellectual, disembodied, macroeconomic terms because he didn’t have to confront the reality of the shackle; he literally didn’t have to see it. But we did. 

I could see my students doing the complex work of synthesizing their cognitive understanding of the story and these objects with a more corporeal encounter that was happening to all of us. It was in their eyes.  What would mean for an individual to muster the psychological, physical, and material resources to resist being a slave? Hard teaching indeed, but history wasn’t done with us. Dr. Amadou Sall from Africana studies was with us for the class and talked to us about other cases of royal family members who were enslaved in the eighteenth century.  As he finished, he challenged us with the claim that slavery is far from over, not just in other countries but in the U.S. as well. Long after the Emancipation Proclamation, Knoxville is a hub of modern human trafficking, largely due to the highway system and a web-based trade that supplies johns with victims on demand, at large sporting events, conventions, and motels. Stunned by all of this information, Dr. Sall turned his observation into challenge: “now that you know this, what are you going to do about it?”

I realize that “British Literature, 1660-1740” is hardly a course title that conjures images of immediate application, ethical challenge, or activism. I didn’t take my students into the archive for that purpose. But this is what the humanities will do when we take the human experience seriously.  I have been teaching this novella for years now and for many reasons.  It’s an important achievement in the history of the novel; it became a significant abolitionist piece of literature, though Behn’s original politics have more to do with her own royalism; and it blurs the lines between travel narrative, biography, fiction, and romance in ways that landmark novels after it, such as Robinson Crusoe, would also do. But I have never been asked what I am going to do about it.

Paul Ricoeur has talked about historical memory as the confrontation between the body as object and the body as lived. To understand that other bodies have been made objects is a known fact, part of what we know to be history, but to confront the present tense of that process, bringing our own lived experiences into the equation is to realize that history makes demands on us; we can’t “unknow” this knowledge, and while we can try to forget it or repress it, we know it will be back. The history of race relations in this country is punctuated by those returns, the unfinished lessons we thought we could skip over because they made people uncomfortable. Modern human trafficking, both of sex workers and of general workers who are held captive in a variety of ways, raises new notes of urgency, along with a temptation to despair before such evidence of the human capacity for inhumanity or how, as Rochester put it, “savage man alone does man betray.”

So Monday morning, my students brought the question back to me: Dr. Anderson, what do you do about it? My answer was embarrassingly thin, so I promised to learn more about the situation right here in Knoxville and to report back.  Since then, we have learned about the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking (, which is providing us with more information resources and some opportunities for action: an Oct. 15th fundraiser, a January 30th 5K “Run for their Lives” to raise awareness and funds; and the possibilities for other kinds of creative resource collaborations with UT.  It’s a small organization doing all it can to make connections between victims and other agencies, to help agencies coordinate with each other, even to train installers from the cable company (who might be allowed in a house with trafficked girls) to recognize the signs. You can learn more about those signs and the state of sex trafficking in the U.S. from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

Something happened in our class, which has been spending time in UT archives all year long, archives which fortunately were not all as traumatizing as this one. Some of our time has been with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books in Hodges Special Collections, carefully selected by Chris Caldwell, where we’ve discovered some kinder, gentler messages: handwritten marginalia, a young reader practicing his signature, a pressed flower from 325 years ago. Together, we’ve been getting our hands dirty. We felt a shared sense of obligation at the discovery that people are being trafficked right here in Knoxville, and we decided collectively not to ignore it; we are working out our collective and individual responses as we are able. One student is now taking this topic on as her final project for the class on the long history of representations of slavery, connecting it to the horrifying scale of human trafficking in east Tennessee, much of it involving minors. She is organizing her entire dorm and planning an education event for this semester. There’s some talk of a gallery show of these and other McClung artifacts in conjunction with next semester’s screening and discussion of Traces of the Trade. Others are thinking about training themselves to work in museums and archives where we can preserve and begin to read the traces of human history. I am in awe of so much in this picture: the museum and library staff and archivists like Robert Rennie, Lindsay Wainright, Chris Caldwell, and Louisa Trott who make this kind of class possible. I am also in awe of my students and their open-hearted responses to history. The archive opens to our slightest touch, our curiosity about the past. What are you going to do about it?

Belated update: on Tuesday, November 17th, 2015, my students hosted a teach-in event at the Howard Baker Center, with Kate Trudell of the CCAHT, Cynthia Deitle of the FBI, and Jonathan Scoonover, CCAHT Board President. Over 330 people attended, with standing room only for most of them. Students donated hundreds of volunteer hours at an inVOLvment fair just after the presenation, and thanks to Sarah Primm and South Carrick Hall, we made a donation of $500 to CCAHT (these are students, mind you, who sold T-shirts to raise the money), with the hope of more on the way. I could not be more honored to be their professor. They are already changing the world.