Infants convey their refusal by crying, shaking their head, and at around 12 to 24 months old, they begin to understand the meaning of “no” and begin to use it (BabyCenter). Though it is a basic human right for a person to be able to decide whether or not they choose to do something, there are millions that are not able to choose for themselves as this right is taken from them. A primary example of this situation is slavery—most who are/have been enslaved did not choose to be in the position that they are/have been in; though some might have had the opportunity to choose, they were likely forced into the situation. Above all, as a slave, the right to choose and speak up for yourself is seized from you.
It is easy to forget about how easily a person’s life can change from one moment to the next. Ishmael Beah had been living a normal life until, as a twelve year-old, he was enslaved and was forced to fight in the Sierra Leone civil war in 1993. Beah’s family, along with many others, was consumed in the fires of a burning village, leaving him without a family and without a home. Beah found shelter in a village run by government soldiers—however, through the use of “fear, indoctrination, cocaine, marijuana and brown-brown (cocaine mixed with gunpowder), the government army turned Beah and other children into killing machines (End Slavery Now).” Similar to many instances of slavery, Beah was not able to refuse the orders to kill given by his commanders and was not allowed to ask any questions: “There was no second guessing because when you ask a question and you say ‘Why,’ they’ll shoot you right away.” Beah spent three years fighting in the Sierra Leone conflict and was rescued by UNICEF in 1996. Now, Beah is an accomplished writer and activist dedicated to “make sure that what happened to [him] doesn’t continue to happen to other children around the world (Ishmael Beah).” In his memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Beah reveals his experiences as a boy soldier: “My squad is my family my gun is my provider, and protector, and my rule is to kill or be killed.”
As shown by Beah’s situation, slavery continues to be an issue today. According to CNN, there are approximately 36 million people who are currently enslaved. These people are abused for their services—many of these which include domestic servitude, sex trafficking, forced labor, child labor, bonded labor, forced marriages, etc. Their exploitation generates about “$150 billion each year in illicit profits for traffickers (End Slavery Today),” which I find, for lack of a better word, unbelievable. Some of the major benefactors of forced labor are brand name companies that include Forever 21, H&M, Adidas, Zara, Urban Outfitters, Victoria’s Secret, etc. (Gurl) These clothing companies manufacture their products in sweatshops—factories where the workers are underpaid and suffer from poor working conditions. These laborers do not have workers’ rights that establish fair wages, hours, and acceptable working environments as we are privileged to have. They do not have the option to leave the dangerous factories, as these jobs are most likely one of the few jobs that are available to them.
Every day, people are looking to discover ways to do things more efficiently, to generate more products in faster and cheaper ways. However, one of the devastating outcomes of our consumer economy, as demonstrated by these companies, is slavery. We usually do not think of ourselves as contributors and supporters of slavery; but, by buying the products of those who utilize forced slavery as a means to manufacture their products, we do. I am, of course, guilty of this offense too. Who doesn’t like saving money? But, as my English teacher made clear to me once, behind every number is a person.
Throughout the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass discusses the crimes committed by the slaveholders against the slaves– though the slaveholders, of course, did not view these actions as crimes. Mr. Gore, like many overseers, was a sadistic man who took pleasure in the suffering screams of the slaves he unfairly punished. In the case of Mr. Gore, Frederick Douglass explains that “to be accused was to be convicted, and to be convicted was to be punished (Douglass 27).” Most of us, I would assume, have been accused of something we did not do, whether or not we would be/were punished for it. Now, however, imagine yourself receiving lashes that cut and tear and dig at your flesh for something you did not do. Imagine yourself working on the plantation of Mr. Gore, having to worry about every “slightest look, word, or gesture (Douglass 27)” as Mr. Gore would use those reasons just to torture you. Imagine yourself in the place of these slaves, without the right to speak out in defense as you are punished despite your innocence.
Millions upon millions of Africans suffered from the terrible situations similar to those described by Frederick Douglass. In addition to the torturous expectations, grueling environments, and sadistic overseers (these a fraction among the many torments) the Africans experienced, they also had to undergo the process of being evaluated and sold by the slaveholders at slave auctions. Pictured below is an article published by the New York Tribute of a New Orleans slave auction that took place in January 18th, 1885. The author describes that “Fresh ‘lots’ of negroes were constantly coming in, and the various ‘dealers’ were making examinations of the different ‘articles’ on exhibition.” The author him/herself makes it clear that the people who ran this trade saw the Africans as “articles”—things that could be bought and sold as simply as clothes or animals. These “Fresh ‘lots’ of [Africans],” as previously discussed before, were being herded in groups of hundreds to places where they had no desire to be in. Though they could, many did not utter a noise of defiance as they were appraised like livestock, since it was likely that they would be punished and possibly put to death.
Many of us take advantage of our right to speak out and make our thoughts known; many of us take advantage of our right to choose and participate in what we want and what we believe is right. Yet, as mentioned before, around 36 million people who are currently enslaved, along with the 12.5+ million Africans who were taken from their homes during the Atlantic Slave Trade, do not/did not have these natural, human rights. Though these numbers, roughly, each represent a person, these measurements do not capture the amount of the devastating experiences these people have gone through, are going through, and will go through.