By Andrea Nicholson
Slave narratives have long been a valuable tool in abolitionism; the pamphlets, papers, art, lectures and writings by abolitionists, slaves and amanuenses during the 19thcentury were central to galvanising the abolitionist movement and effecting change. These collections continue to inform our perspectives of slavery today, with historic narratives providing a basis upon which we can understand the nature of slavery then and now.
In whatever form they take, slave narratives have documentary status and these authentic voices expose the internal landscape of survivors, unearthing the more subtle and complex facets of enslavement, discovery and freedom. Much is revealed by what survivors say and do not say,, by who tells us and who does not, by how we are told and even by how narratives are gathered.
As we work to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 8.7 of ending slavery, we need to listen to the antislavery ideas and solutions of enslaved people themselves: what do they suggest would enable their communities to become not just slavery-free but slavery-proof? What are common pathways for survivors of slavery who have been ‘liberated’? Following liberation, what proportion of survivors remain free and what proportion have re-entered situations of slavery? What are the risk and protective factors that are most closely linked to sustained liberation? What liberation models and reintegration services are most important? Why do reintegrated survivors decide to participate in antislavery efforts in their communities, or not? It is only by placing survivors’ voices at the very heart of the antislavery movement, by working closely with survivors, that we can hope to answer these questions and construct effective antislavery framework—ones that reflect survivors’ true lived experiences.
However, it is today quite unusual for the voices of survivors to feature significantly in these debates. For example, national laws are typically focused on prevention and prosecution, and not on the survivor, with survivors’ perspectives represented by third parties and the identification and treatment of survivors remaining problematic.
The significance of telling not only lies in the ability to present states of existence to the world and to inform our understanding of slavery, but also holds measurable value for survivors who can find therapeutic benefits in the ability to craft (or re-craft) their identities, to write themselves into being and assume agency over their bodies and lives. Providing a platform for survivors enables them to operate as agents for change and, in the words of survivor and activist Shamere McKenzie, as the “voice for those still enslaved, the voice for those perished while enslaved, and the voice for those who are free but have not the courage to speak up.”
The challenge is to bring those voices forward at a time where slavery is prevalent but too often hidden, where our structures mean that survivors are lost from one service to another or pushed out of support too early in their recovery.
At the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab we are creating, analysing and utilizing the first major sustainable development resource of contemporary slave narratives: building and learning from a collection of thousands of first-person life stories. From the point of discovery, we are examining survivors’ experiences of recovery, involvement in prosecution, perceptions of justice, and their specific ideas for antislavery and recovery techniques. We will then work with partners NGO to test these solutions in the areas of community self-help, programme design, and policy intervention..
Underpinning all our work to uncover Survivors’ Solutions for ending slavery is our support for a Survivor Alliance: a survivor-led, national organizing body for that builds survivor-leadership capacity and amplifies survivor voices..
In this way, we hope to help bring survivors’ voices to the forefront of the antislavery movement.
This blog post is part of our Monthly Series in partnership with the University of Nottingham.
Andrea Nicholson leads the Survivors’ Solution, a project by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab that is working to place survivors’ voices at the heart of the global antislavery movement.