2012-13 | Human Trafficking - Past and Present: Crossing Disciplines, Crossing Borders

The twenty-first century has witnessed a global expansion of slavery and the slave trade. Long considered a relic of the past that had been dismantled during the emancipation period of the nineteenth century, coerced labor is spreading as part of the informal labor sector not only in economically depressed countries, but also in emerging industrialized economies and the most advanced industrialized and democratic societies. Recent scholarship has emphasized the protean nature of slavery up through the nineteenth century, as well as the new forms of bound labor that emerged in the twentieth. Processes of modern globalization have exacerbated this modern form of slavery and the attendant slave trading that is now most commonly referred to as human trafficking.

Contemporary human trafficking is a social phenomenon and human rights crisis that is not well understood in terms of its historical origins and precedents. This is in part because misconceptions about historical slavery obscure continuities with the present. Too often we think that slavery in the past was plantation slavery. In fact, scholars have shown that slavery was common in a vast array of past societies, and that slaves played different roles in different places at different times. It is true the millions of enslaved African who were transported across the Atlantic lived and died growing staple crops on plantations, but countless others worked as laborers in town and country, as craftsmen in urban and rural workshops, as transportation workers on roads, rivers and oceans, as domestic and sexual workers in homes, taverns and brothels, and as industrial workers in factories and mines. If we look beyond slavery in the Americas, the variety only increases, with many victims of slavery throughout the world having also worked as soldiers, domestic guardians, public laborers, and tutors. We believe that modern human trafficking is best understood as yet another chapter in the long story of the adaptation of bound labor to new and changing circumstances.

Co-directed by Rice University history professors James Sidbury and Kerry Ward, the course will begin with the history of slavery and slave trading, considering both U.S. and global histories of slavery through the 19th century. With these foundational discussions in mind, the course will turn to modern forms of human trafficking, exploring how 20th century political initiatives sought to globalize the suppression of slavery through human rights discourses. Narrowing the focus of the topic, the seminar will use Houston as a case study to examine the public and private philanthropic actors working to combat new forms of slave trading and labor exploitation. By examining these histories and discourses across a long-ranging historical period and through interdisciplinary approaches, the seminar will work to produce innovative work that shows the intersection between local and global cultures of human trafficking.

Read more about the seminar here (p 32).


Rice Faculty Leaders

James Sidbury, Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor of Humanities
Slavery and Trafficking in Florida Agriculture from the 1820s to the Present
Florida plays an unfortunate role in the history of illegal human trafficking. Its long and unpatrolled coast attracted slavers selling Africans despite the 1808 ban on the Atlantic Trade. Agribusinesses used guest worker programs to exploit foreign labor in the Twentieth Century. Recently, several growers have been charged with enslaving migrant workers. I will study coerced and semi-coerced labor from the beginning of plantation agriculture in Florida until the present to ask what has and has not changed in the state’s forced labor regimes. 

Kerry Ward, associate professor of history
Suppressing Slavery at Sea: International Cooperation in Ending the Maritime Slave Trade
The suppression of the maritime slave trade began well before formal emancipation in the British empire in 1834. Abolition was also a gradual process in other sovereign states and empires during the nineteenth century. In the interim, bi-lateral treaties signed with Britain sought to suppress the maritime slave trade by allowing for mutual search and seizure of ships at sea. My research will explore these international agreements and how they relate to contemporary international initiatives against human trafficking.

Seminar Participants

Rebecca A. Goetz, assistant professor of history
Indian Enslavement in the Atlantic World, 1500-1670
Rebecca’s project examines slavery as practiced on people indigenous to the Americas and the enslavement of Indians by Europeans in the first two centuries after contact. The enslavement of Indians was an economic and ideological precursor to the large-scale enslavement of Africans, and indeed predates the English trade in slaves on the West African coast. Interest in Indian slaving was an early and regular feature of English colonization attempts from the late sixteenth century on, yet no studies have attempted to explain English interest in enslaved Indians at this early date. Goetz explores the logic behind English enslavement of Indians as a crucial element for understanding Anglo-Indian relations in this new colonial world. Throughout the year she will focus on English ideologies of Indian enslavement and the Anglo-French alliance of enslavement on St. Christopher between 1620 and 1640.

Kimberly Kay Hoang, postdoctoral fellow in the Poverty, Justice, and Human Capabilities Program
Human Trafficking: Migration and Forced Labor
Kimberly is currently working on two book projects that will contribute to the discussions of this year's Rice Seminar. Her first book titled, Chasing the Dragon: Sex and Finance in Vietnam’s New Global Economy, is a monograph based on 22 months of ethnographic research between 2006-2007 and 2009-2010 in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam’s global sex industry. She worked as a bartender and hostess analyzing four different bars that cater to wealthy local Vietnamese men and their Asian business partners, overseas Vietnamese men living in the diaspora, Western businessmen, and Western budget travelers. The second book project titled, Human Trafficking: Migration and Forced Labor, is an edited volume commissioned by Open Society that she is co-authoring with Professor Rachel Parreans.

Rachel Hooper, graduate student, department of art history
Creating a Monster that Swallows You: Seeing the Suppressed in Kara Walker's Cut Paper Silhouettes
Exploring the psychological dimensions behind human trafficking, Rachel studies Kara Walker’s cut paper silhouettes from “Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart” (1994) to “Excavated from the Black Heart of a Negress” (2002). She examines these silhouettes as part of a long history of human trafficking that has gone largely unvisualized and unseen. In addition, she studies the psychological effects of creating and viewing images of suppressed narratives, catharsis, exorcism, and sadomasochism. Rachel hopes to build a database of images from which to study human trafficking, and locate Walker’s art as part of the stories suppressed beneath contemporary and historical histories of human trafficking.

Sheryl McCurdy, associate professor of health promotion and behavioral science & division of management, University of Texas-Houston School of Public Health
Human and Drug Trafficking in Tanzania: Public Health Concerns and Responses
McCurdy’s research examines the on-going policy and programmatic effects of trafficking on public health efforts, attending specifically to the intersection of human and drug trafficking and how networks of trafficking respond and adapt to international and state policies aimed to combat trafficking. Using social science theory and methods, she examines the ideas, theories, and practices related to both universalistic human rights and criminalization in an examination of the ways global, national, and local actors in particular locales negotiate the chaos created by human and drug trafficking. She will analyze the prevailing public health and social science discourses that emphasize the criminalization of human migration and use of illicit drugs under the discourse of ‘trafficking,’ and how people accommodate and resist these discourses at different levels (local, national, global/transnational).

Jennifer Musto, Ph.D. Women's Studies, UCLA
Human Trafficking, Carceral Protectionism, and Rescue Politics in the United States
Jennifer's research explores questions about how state and non-governmental agents collaborate around the regulation and surveillance of sex workers, irregular migrants, and sexual minorities in local and global contexts. She further traces law enforcement, non-governmental, and social service responses to human trafficking, irregular border crossing, and intimate labor. Expanding upon earlier work, she attends to the ways in which human trafficking has translated into heightened multi-professional efforts to identify forced labor practices in the United States. Informed by ethnographic research with trafficked persons, law enforcement agents, NGO advocates, social workers, feminists, and human-rights activists, her project contributes to scholarly knowledge on human trafficking by mapping the sites and spaces in which collaborative anti-trafficking interventions have expanded the reach of the criminal and juvenile justice systems and fastened anti-trafficking rescue projects to the growth of the carceral state. 

Deliana Popova, Ph.D. Political Science, University of Hamburg, Germany
Securitizing Human Trafficking: Moral and Security Concerns in Contemporary Anti-Trafficking Discourses
Against the background of Critical Security Studies (CSS), Deliana’s research deals with the question of how human trafficking has developed into a security issue and how identity issues are implicated in it. She explores the two dominant conceptualizations of human trafficking as a security problem linked to illegal immigration and organized crime and a moral problem linked to prostitution as parts of one and the same process, namely the securitization of human trafficking, in which restrictive crime-oriented and humanitarian victim-oriented discourses and interventions imply the same politics of exclusion and marginalization. Using the comparative examples of three countries with different immigration history and legal regulations on prostitution - Germany, Italy and the United States – she unpacks the different ideological rationales behind existent protection schemes for “victims of trafficking” and explains why they are unable to incorporate a human rights perspective.

Robert W. Slenes, professor of history, Universidade Estadual de Campinas
Contrasts in Bondage in Brazil’s Center-South: The Central African Diaspora, Manumission and Slave Identity in Large and Small Holdings, 1791-1888
Continuing his current book project, “Central-African culture and slave identity on the sugar and coffee plantations of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, 1791-1888,” Slenes explores key aspects of Central-African slave culture in Brazil. More specifically, he attends to markers of African identity, including key religious movements and black challenge songs dating from the period of slavery. As an extension of the book, Slenes also seeks to explore new research regarding manumission in Brazil’s Center-South. This research demonstrates that slaves in smallholdings – particularly in properties of first-time owners, especially freed Africans – had considerably more access to freedom than those in large properties. He investigates the reasons for this contrast and its consequences for slave identity in plantation and non-plantation contexts, arguing that these conditions were specific to the historical and political context of Brazil.

Meina Yates-Richardson, graduate student, department of English
This project explores the sonic dimensions of slavery and human trafficking and its specific articulations and representations within 20th century African American and Diasporic Literatures. Meina examines textual moments in which narrative language fails, wherein sound is referenced or represented as a supplement through which to decode or understand the text. This project focuses on the aural rather than the oral nature of black textual production beyond the bounds of linguistic articulation. By studying these sounds within the long history of human trafficking and bondage, this project will locate the specific set(s) of sound-practices that typify transatlantic slavery as well as track the development of sound technologies that continue to transform the aural aspects of trafficking articulated in various modes of cultural and artistic production.