Much of the recent talk about slavery, thanks to success of 12 Years a Slave, is about how contemporary society might come to grips with the legacy of this evil past. Conversations in the media tend to focus on trying to better understand what slavery was. (The film is credited with, among other things, driving home the intimacy of the slave-owner relationships, removing a perceived distance in our vision of slavery–something even revelations about Sally Hemmings failed to do.) These efforts to confront an execrable past reflect the noble intentions of well-meaning people–people who want to look the sickening history of slavery in the eye and strip away the misconceptions. But a problem with this approach can be seen in the words legacy, history and was. For while the American version of slavery depicted in 12 Years a Slave was ended officially by the Civil War (even if its one-time existence still pollutes the republic), slavery itself is still prevalent in the world. As William Faulkner wrote: “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”
The organization called Freedom For All doesn’t operate under the assumption that slavery is past. Instead, citing 27 million people currently in slavery of one form or another–forced labor, sex trafficking, domestic servitude–Freedom For All works to eradicate the slavery that persists on this crowded planet. These issues pop up into the news and then fade from view: recently an Indian diplomat was denied entry to the US after mistreatment of her domestic servant was documented. The story was front page news for a few days and then vanished–while millions of people in untenable work environments (and worse) continue on in obscurity. Freedom For All remains vigilant on their behalf–it’s to modern slavery what Amnesty International is to free speech. Working in conjunction with dedicated partners like Polaris Project, GEMS, Reporter Brazil and Verité, Freedom For All works to draw the world’s attention to its least seen people–the invisible, recycled underclass. Perpetual vigilance is necessary. It may help to remember that the story of Solomon Northrop–the free black man who was kidnapped and enslaved and who later escaped to write the memoir on which the film is based–was famous long before 2013. The memoir was a bestseller in 1853–and Northrup a celebrity–before his story was forgotten. The resurrection of Northrup’s story on film should spark conversation not only about the horrible slavery of a bygone era, but also the slavery of today.