Interviewer: How did you first become aware of modern-day slavery and human
trafficking? Soodalter: By accident. While I was looking for a suitable topic for my Afterword in
Hanging Captain Gordon, I came across a cover article on modern slavery in the New York
Times’ Sunday Magazine. I’d had no idea, and it blew me away. It was a short next
step to relate the phenomenon of slavery today to the activities of the eighteenth and nineteenth
century slave traders.
I. What does slavery in America today look like? Where would we find
it? S. Slavery in America takes many forms. Whereas the pre-Civil War form of slavery was
both legal and public, today’s slavery is illegal and hidden. And while the ante-bellum slave
cost as much as $1200 – the equivalent of $50,000 in today’s currency – a slave
today can be bought for as little as $100, making that person not only affordable, but also
disposable. Today’s slavery is not specific to gender, ethnicity, race or type. American’s
slave can be found – or, more accurately, not found – in all 50 states, working
as farmhands, domestics, sweatshop and factory laborers, gardeners, restaurant and construction
workers, and victims of sexual exploitation. Where an opportunity exists for exploitation,
there’s a good chance there is a hidden slave.
I.I would imagine this is a very emotional subject; how did you respond
to this? S. There is a world of difference between being aware of slavery on an intellectual
level and actually meeting and speaking with people whose lives have been forever changed by it. It
was humbling, and it brought a visceral awareness to the project. And it informed my view of
America’s historic slavery; while I had studied and written about it for years, the impact was
buffered by the distance of time. Since coming to know survivors, and those who work daily to help
them, I will never be able to look at slavery the same way again.
I. How does slavery play a part in our everyday lives? S. Many facets of our daily lives are impacted by slavery and the products of
slavery. There’s a chance that the clothes you wear and the food you eat have been tainted by
slavery. Cotton, that symbol of slavery in the pre-Civil War South, is now being picked by slaves on
three continents. The orange juice and tomato you might have had with your burger today could very
well have come to you from a Mexican or Guatemalan immigrant working under coercion. The
“oriental” rug in your living room could have been woven in India, Nepal, or Pakistan by
one of a hundred thousand child slaves whose fingers tie the tiny knots so prized by consumers. Cell
phones and laptops require an element called tantalum, which comes from an ore mined in the Congo
– often by slaves. This doesn’t imply that all rugs, cotton shirts, cell phones, oranges
are the products of slave labor; but some are, and we just never know. It’s that insidious.
I. Why has slavery flourished? S. Sadly, today’s form of human trafficking and slavery lives in the shadows;
neither the general public nor most of our police and government officials have any idea how to
recognize it, or what to do once they have.
I. We are a free country. Why aren’t slaves able to escape? S. There are several reasons why today’s slaves can’t escape. Many
foreign nationals don’t speak English. They often suffer a deep sense of shame – and
denial – regarding their situation. They fear for their lives, and those of their families in
the home country. They often feel the obligation to pay off their “debt,” regardless how
fraudulent or inflated. They are disoriented by their surroundings, and wouldn’t know where to
go – or to whom – should they run away. Their traffickers program them to fear
police and immigration officials. And sometimes, they actually come to identify with their keepers.
I. Are there any American slaves or are most slaves foreigners trafficked into this
country? S. There are, indeed, slaves taken from among our own population. Several
sources, including the federal government, places in the hundreds of thousands the number of American
citizens – mostly children and young people – at risk of being caught in slavery annually.
The type of slavery seen as most prevalent among U.S. citizens is sexual exploitation.
I. Why is it so difficult for law enforcement officers to stop slavery that’s going
on right in their own jurisdictions? S. Of the few cases of slavery uncovered in America, only around one-third are as a
result of government action. On the local and state levels, there has been woefully little done to
train and educate our law enforcement agencies on the subject of modern-day slavery. The one type of
slavery with which law enforcement seems at all familiar is sexual exploitation. Yet sadly, if a
policeman looks at an underage prostitute, he most likely has no idea that she could be in a coercive
situation. She is arrested, and out of fear, she says nothing. And so, she is victimized three times:
by the trafficker, the johns who rape her daily, and the system that should be educated as to how to
rescue and support her, but instead, ensures that the cycle continues.
I. You say that 40 states have anti-human trafficking laws. Why hasn’t this stopped
the problem? S. No one form of slavery is more horrific than another. Yet, although some 40 states
have passed anti-human trafficking laws, most of them focus mainly, if not entirely, on the issue of
prostitution and sex slavery, and ignore or downplay the broader spectrum. Also, the state laws mainly
concentrate on catching and punishing the traffickers, while ignoring the vital issue of long-term
support and counseling for the survivors. Finally, despite passing laws promising the allocation of
millions of dollars in anti-trafficking funding, frequently the money is never paid. Talk’s
cheap; without the funding to back up the promises, the laws are worthless.
I. What do you think will happen to the slavery agenda with the new
administration? S. While the Bush Administration’s response to the issue of slavery in America
was inadequate, and focused almost entirely on sexual exploitation, it’s too soon to tell how
the Obama Administration will address the problem. It is, however, encouraging that both the President
and Secretary of State Clinton have made public statements that reflect a concern and an awareness
regarding human trafficking and slavery in America.
I. What will it take to end slavery once and for all? S. It’s essential that Americans are made aware that this blight exists in our
country today. Without an educated public, there is no hope of eliminating the problem. Through
ignorance, and worse yet, indifference, we enable slavery. America was born with the congenital
disease of slavery and, legal or not, it has never left us. While we were looking the other way,
slavery in America evolved into a whole new beast that lives in darkness among us, and feeds on
ignorance and misery. Only through our awareness, our concern, and our commitment can it be driven
out. We find it both challenging and exhilarating to think that we can be the generation to end this
Interviewer: The Gordon story is unique in American history. What was it that first attracted you
to it? Soodalter: The sheer drama of the story. I was an undergrad in the late 60's, and very little
had actually been written about Gordon. Diving into the primary sources had all the aspects of a
treasure hunt. At the outset, all I really knew was that President Lincoln had resisted considerable
political pressure, and allowed a young sea captain to hang for slave trading.
I: Did you have sympathy for Gordon? S: Initially, yes. I'd come from a comfortable white middle-class home, and although a student
of American history, my exposure to the horrors of the slave trade was academic, not visceral. In
Gordon, I saw a loving husband and father dying at the end of a rope, and it felt tragic.
I: And now? S: My sympathy - and my outrage - lie with the millions of humans that Gordon and his ilk
unfeelingly ripped from their homes and destroyed. In Gordon's time, there was an attrition rate of
over 17% aboard slave ships. Of every 100 captives chained below deck, 17 died. And this doesn't
encompass the vast numbers who died in bondage after the slavers delivered them. The true tragedy lies
in our government's unforgivably lax approach to enforcing the slave trade laws, in its refusal to
cooperate with Great Britain when cooperation would have meant ending the slave traffic decades
earlier, and in letting men like Gordon evade punishment as a matter of policy. Gordon died for the
thousands of slavers who pursued their careers untroubled by the rule of law.
I: You have said that you are an admirer of Abraham Lincoln. And yet, he stated publicly that he
considered blacks inferior to whites, and that he would not attempt to interfere with slavery in the
southern United States. How do you reconcile your admiration with these issues? S: I think it is a common pitfall that we tend to judge history's personages by today's moral
standards. Lincoln was a product of his time. His racial views were honed and tempered by where he
was, and when. Bear in mind, though, that he welcomed Frederick Douglass to the White House, and spoke
with him as an equal. I think Lincoln's perceptions on race altered during the course of his
presidency. As to his refusal to interfere with slavery, Lincoln hated the whole idea of slavery, but
it was not prohibited by the Constitution, and he was a strict constructionist. And it's important to
remember that his main objective was to keep the Union together.
I: Lincoln wasn't the only one to make allowances for slavery while working to end the slave trade.
Didn't the prosecutor in the Gordon case make similar statements? S: Delafield Smith did tell the jury that he was set on hanging a slave trader, but was not an
abolitionist by any means. This was a common distinction made at the time: Slavery was the social,
cultural and economic way of things, but slave trading was tantamount to kidnapping. It was an
artificial distinction at best, but it helped many white Americans sleep at night.
I: Were you disappointed that Smith was not a slavery-hating crusader? S: I was, at first. We all look for the man on the white horse. But I think it's enough that he
did all within his power to stop the slave trade in New York and the country. In that regard, he was a
crusader. I can't judge his politics from this distance, nor should I. I learned long ago that there
is no such thing as an unbiased history, and I make no claims on that score, but my task was to record
the events as accurately as possible, warts and all.
I: Aside from the slavers' victims, who in your story holds your sympathy? S: I would have to say Elizabeth Gordon. She was a fragile young woman - married at 15, and
mother to a young child - thrust into this awful nightmare. Her days were filled with the sights and
smells of the "Tombs" prison, as all hope of saving her husband gradually dissipated. I so regret that
there is no record of Elizabeth after her husband's execution.
I: In writing the book, was there a particular point when you were most effected? S: Yes. I was typing along at a good clip, and I came to the point where Judge Shipman was to
pronounce sentence. I stopped and read what Shipman said, then I read it aloud. I had always thought
it a remarkable speech, but having become so immersed in writing the book, I found that it had renewed
impact. I discovered that as I was reading it, I wept.
I: You've ended your book with a chapter on the modern-day slave trade. In what ways do you see
this as an extension of the trade of Gordon's day? S: The slave trade of Gordon's time pales in comparison. Today's slave trade is infinitely more
vast, more widespread, more secretive, and more difficult to eradicate than that of the 19th century.
It's estimated that there are over 27 million people in bondage in the world today, with the United
States a prime destination. They are brought in through our airports with false papers, or smuggled
across our borders. There are slaves in nearly every state, working in a number of different jobs.
They come from Asia, India, Africa, the former Soviet states, and South and Central America. It has
reached epidemic proportions, and most Americans are unaware of its scope - or even its existence.
Once again, the government must rally, and make a supreme effort to stomp it out. Too little is being
done, as tens of thousands are trafficked into the United States every year.