All posts by Lindsey Barrett

The New Face of the Black Atlantic

This blog is primarily dedicated to slavery as it existed from the 17th through 19th centuries⎯ and the idea that slavery was eradicated with the last country to abolish it during this phase, Brazil in 1888, is commonplace. But while this was one of the apexes of allowing human beings to be bought and sold like chattel, it was by no mean the end of it. Modern slavery is just as—or more⎯ pervasive, violent, and as deeply wrong on a fundamental level as it once was; but the pernicious part is that while Atlantic slavery dominated conversations religious, political, and ethical until it was abolished, modern slavery is barely part of the discussion.

Photographer Lisa Kristine had been photographing the whole gamut of subjects, all over the word, and for 28 years, when she met a supporter of the organization Free the Slaves. Over the course of their discussion, the supporter informed Kristine that there were (in 2009) 27 million slaves worldwide living in conditions just as execrable as any 19th century account (this is the same estimate as the one released by the US State Department in 2013 This discovery bowled her over, and made her determined to help these people in the best way she knew how; by giving them a face, and a voice. (

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The facts that led to Kristine’s professional change of course are truly staggering, both in comparison to slavery in the past, and intrinsically. In the 19th century, an agricultural slave cost about the average American farmer’s yearly wage, about $50,000. And yet today, an entire family can be enslaved to pay off a debt as low as $18. The scale of the problem is immense, both in numbers and ubiquity. NY Times Nick Kristoff estimates that at least tenfold as many girls are trafficked through brothels as Africans were brought into the New World during the peak of the slave trade. And the problem truly is ubiquitous– while the worst countries in the world for modern slavery are Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Sudan and Zimbawe, ( the Walk Free Foundation estimates that there are at least 60,000 modern slaves being forced into labor in the United States. Moral imperatives are moral imperatives, and the need to stop injustice shouldn’t be limited by something as trivial and arbitrary as national borders. But at the very least, we should be able to save the 60,000 poor souls living within our own.

The problem is immense, and on a global scale; it also encapsulates a wide stretch of definitions, everything from involuntary child prostitution to forced labor. The rush to finish infrastructure for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi led to widespread human rights abuses of migrant laborers, with a similar pattern occurring in Brazil with their preparations for the World Cup. In countries such as Mauritania, children can be born into slavery

This isn’t a problem easily fixed; it’s enormous and entrenched. When existing infrastructure that could be solving the problem has yet to, the solution is far more complicated than cut-and-dry 1), awareness, 2), widespread horror, 3), call-to-action, 4), problem solved. This illuminating op-ed was published in the New York Times— 14 years ago. The State department released this report a year ago It’s been half a century since Abraham Lincoln legally freed American slaves; and yet the 27 million slaves struggling to survive today are still waiting.

“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” : The Political Power of the Image

In this endlessly interconnected internet age, the idea that an image can have a profound and widespread impact hardly needs to be explained; it’s implicit. The advent of both photography– the way in which potent images of current events could be quickly and realistically produced– and the internet–the way in which they could be widely and rapidly disseminated–hastened and increased the importance of this phenomenon of images used to provoke political discussion.  And an image can in fact be worth a thousand words; in cases from India’s struggle for independence, to the 1960’s civil rights movement, to the war in Syria today, images of social injustice and war have been able to provoke if not a direct solution, the conversation that brought that solution about.  But while modern technology expedited the rise of disseminated images provoking social change, it was not solely responsible; this phenomenon was able to take place before the camera was invented, before the internet was invented.  It took place, for instance, in 1787, with the engraving by Josiah Wedgewood of a kneeling, chained and supplicant slave, with the powerful words below: “Am I not a friend and a brother?”





This image didn’t come out of the blue; it was made for specifically for the purpose of moving hearts and minds.  The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in 1787 by Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson.  While the founders themselves were Anglican, the movement was popular amongst Quakers, who made up the other 9 founding members; these were William Dillwyn, John Barton, George Harrison, Samuel Hoare Jr., Joseph Hooper, John Lloyd, Joseph Woods, James Phillips and Richard Phillip, and later Josiah Wedgwood. Clarkson had campaigned for the movement previously and became the first historian for Britain’s abolition movement; Wedgewood was the 13th son of Thomas Wedgewood and a political reformer involved with the Unitarian Church.


Just a quick glance at the image reveals how pathos-evoking it must have been at the time.  The figure is strong, vital, well-muscled; yet his circumstances have bent him in two, forcing him to beg for the basic rights that should be his due. His wrists are shackled to his ankles; it’s unlikely he’s able to stand up to full height. Even were he not in this unnatural position of supplication, he would not be able to stand as an autonomous agent should be able to do. His facial expression is nearly blank, numbed; but his lips are parted, as if to enunciate the words at the bottom of the image. Like Shylock asking “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” the caption states baldly that what in the distorted current structure of society should be a rhetorical question, is a genuine question because of how warped standards had become. “Am I not a man and a brother?” Is he? Whether or not a black man is human is of course a rhetorical question to the modern reader– but whether it was rhetorical or not would be less evident for the 19th century reader, and would force reflection. The question became the catchphrase of the British and American abolition movements, and the image was widely reproduced. Men purchased snuffboxes with the image; ladies wore bracelets and hairpins. According to David Dabydeen for BBC History, the image became “the most famous image of a black person in all of 18th century art.” In Joseph Hothschild’s book “Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery,” the author argues that “Wedgewood’s kneeling African, the equivalent of the label buttons we wear for electoral campaigns, was probably the first widespread use of a logo designed for a political cause.” This particular image wasn’t just harrowing and politically effective; it was landmark.


Sidiya Hartman notes in her book “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route” that the image is perhaps more insidious than it may at first seem. While it is clear that the figure is on bended knee, she argues that he is less begging God for freedom than the people of Britain, France and America, which, to the modern ancestor of slaves, is far more demoralizing. To ask God for your freedom is one thing; to ask fellow humans is quite another.   The man in the image is begging for freedom, and the image itself begs those who see it to open their minds and hearts.


Other images were used towards the same end as Wedgewood’s, though none were quite as widespread or as effective. In 1792, John Kimber, the captain of the Recovery, was tried for the murder of two female slaves while the ship embarked on the infamous Middle Passage.  While the cause of the captain’s displeasure isn’t clear, we do know that he ordered the girl hoisted up by ship’s rigging by one leg and flogged, with the process repeated on her other leg.  Tragically and unsurprisingly, she died from her injuries.  The image is stark, and disturbing; though in contrast to “Am I,” the image is deliberately and perversely sexualized, intended to provoke certainly, though to what end remains to be seen.


Slavery is a dark and peculiar case in the history of politically motivated imagery; but even as it is atypical (because it was the most severe of causes, because it predates the examples that followed), it is crucial to understanding how to make people understand problems they wish not to see.  The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade didn’t succeed in their goal for Britain until 1833, and for the United States until 1864.  But that goal was in fact ultimately realized; and, in part, due to the ubiquitous image that branded the painful image of the subjection of slavery into the consciousness of those who would have, and could have, otherwise turned a blind eye.