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Review Essay: Francis Bok's Escape from Slavery and Contemporary Slave Narratives

The concept of 'slave narrative' registers as a literary antiquity, one that disappeared with the living memory of slavery. According to the United Nations, there are some twenty-seven millions living in forced servitude today; there were only four million slaves freed by the US Civil War.

Joe Lockard

Issue #69, June 2004

The slave narrative never died. Contemporary readers, to the extent that they encounter slave narratives, usually do so in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century writings of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, or Harriet Jacobs. The concept of 'slave narrative' registers as a literary antiquity, one that disappeared with the living memory of slavery. According to the United Nations, there are some twenty-seven millions living in forced servitude today; there were only four million slaves freed by the US Civil War. The question is not why slave narratives continue to emerge; rather, the question is why more slave narratives are not published?

Slave labor on the White Sea Canal, 1932-33. Courtesy Memorial Society, Moscow.In fact, viewed as a global genre, the slave narrative has been in the midst of a bitter 'golden age' during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. There has never been such an international proliferation of slave narratives, emerging into publication in Russia, eastern Europe, Korea, Brazil, Israel, and other countries. In Europe, slave narratives have mobilized sufficient political and legal force to compel German payment of tens of billions of dollars via compensation agreements for forced labor. The wave of European slave literature — slave, not prison literature — that began in the 1970s is vast and unending.

In Asia, successive Japanese governments have continued to resist explicit apologies and compensation claims based on the slave narratives of Korean, Chinese and Indonesian women forced into military brothels. Most of these narratives today come on film from now-elderly women and former sex slaves who emerge, often with reluctance, to tell their stories.

Four Korean 'comfort women' detained in China, 1945. Courtesy US National Archives.Africa, where the largest and longest sustained colonial enslavement history provided human capital that fueled New World settlement and the Industrial Revolution, today publishes the fewest slave narratives despite having one of the major remaining slave populations. African slave narratives continue to have the least impact on mass political consciousness, although the Bush administration whose military aggression is the antithesis of human rights, has proven adept at appropriating such issues as slavery in Sudan and global human trafficking as paper-thin substitutes for a genuine and comprehensive human rights policy.

Slave narratives, published today primarily in journalistic media and human rights reports, project intense political force in large part because readerships believe they should not be reading such reports in the contemporary era, that the act of human enslavement is an historic relic. A similar belief that slavery was an anti-modern offense, for example, caused liberal New York publisher George Palmer Putnam in 1930 to underwrite George Schuyler's journalistic investigations of Liberian slavery, which resulted in Schuyler's 1931 novel Slavery Today! So the St. Martin's Press publicist who blurbs Francis Bok's Escape from Slavery as a "groundbreaking modern slave narrative" participates in this counter-historical marketing of Bok's story as a modernist surprise, as a reiteration of nineteenth-century slave stories. More accurately, this quite compelling book is one of proliferating class of neo-slavery narratives; it gains strength from locating individual Sudanese experience within a global context. As Bok himself realizes by the end of his narrative, it is precisely this comparative context that translates personal history into an understanding of its interrelationship with narratives of race, religion, and nation.

Autobiography of Adaptation

Francis Bok begins his story as Piol Buk, the son of a relatively prosperous Dinka farming family in the southern Sudanese village of Gurion. At age seven, having been sent to the nearby marketplace of town of Nyamlell with eggs and peanuts for sale, Bok, his sister, and other Dinka women and children were seized by heavily-armed Arab raiders from northern Sudan in a bloody raid that left dead bodies scattered across the market. Later, Bok was to discover that the same raiders had attacked his home village and killed his parents. The passages describing the raid bear a strong parallel to eyewitness reportage of the invasion of market villages, mass murder, decapitations, and rapes in Mark Danner's The Massacre at El Mozote, detailing the 1981 depredations of the Altacatl Battalion in the highlands of El Salvador. Like the events at El Mozote, the massacres at Nyamlell and neighboring villages were subsequently covered over with layers of political obfuscation. Although the Nyamlell raid happened only five years later in 1986, it received no noticeable publicity in the Western press and the toll of this and similar violence in Sudan remains a matter of gross estimate. During the Sudanese civil war, an estimated two million have been killed.

Bok spent the next ten years as the herd-boy and property of Giemma Abdullah, a livestock owner who had participated in the marketplace raid. As he quickly learned by observation and warning, the punishment for inattention to the goats or cattle, for disobedience, or escape attempts was amputation of an arm or leg. This new life marked the beginning of immense adaptive changes that continue to characterize Bok's life, and that typify lives that experience conversion from freedom to slavery, or the opposite. Slave narratives frequently mention the necessity of adaptation in order to survive. Bok writes "This new world I lived in made no sense to me: The people were different, the smells were different, the food was different, the language was different. Quickly, I realized I could deal with the people, survive on the food . . . . But the one thing I could not take was being unable to understand what these people were saying." Cut off from social relations with other Dinka slaves, for whom speaking their own language was a risk, mastering the Arabic language without instruction became a means of survival.

Bok, the despised abd (slave), adapts by learning Arabic and nominally integrating himself into the new order of life. Interestingly, these is surprisingly little social description of the new village where Bok found himself a herd-boy, in part a function of spending years in the fields with goats and cattle. For ten years spent in a Sudanese village, a reader learns almost nothing. However, that same absence of descriptions of daily life testifies to Bok's alienation and distance from the society of his captors. His primary relationships remain familial — even with Giemma's wife who hates and threatens him — and no substantive broader social relations emerge in his captivity narrative. "My social life was limited to grabbing a few quick sentences with another slave at the water hole," he writes. Bok's true comfort lies with his own memories of his family, particularly his parents. Without location other than in the fields with herds, and without society other than his owner's family, the years of captivity pass in something of a narrative time warp. Bok, who does not own himself, cannot own even the time of his own story.

Bok's major preoccupation becomes escape, which entails the risk of capture and the amputation of a limb, or simply death. He makes his first attempt after seven years of captivity, at age fourteen. The escape lasted all of twenty minutes and brought him a whipping. He tries again the next day, with similar results and death threats from Giemma. The inchoate fear of severe mutilation for escape attempts, such as was visible among other slaves, becomes real and directly aimed at Bok. His early transition from adolescence into maturity comes through realization of the proximity of mutilation or death should he pursue freedom. It is this violence-induced fear of the consequences of escaping towards freedom that haunts the fugitive slave narrative tradition. A competition between fear and desire emerges, one that drives slave narrative to decision points. Death outright is not necessarily the worst outcome: "I was confused," Bok writes, "I did not want to die, but wasn't living with these people a kind of death?"

After three years spent waiting for sufficient maturity to accomplish a successful escape, Bok fled to a nearby provincial town where the police made him their unpaid kitchen boy — another slavery. Bok emerged from slavery entirely ignorant of all but the most limited local geography, so choosing another direction of flight became an exercise in relying on generosity and assistance from those who had no motivation to assist beyond their own conscience. The geographical imperative, in Sudan and later in Egypt and the United States, became to find other Dinka, to re-locate himself within a familiar culture. What Escape from Slavery emphasizes without outright statement is the imperative towards cultural comfort as remedy to social trauma. As a fugitive slave, Bok joins the global refugee community but the Dinka diaspora defines his life's geography.

A friendly Arab truck driver helps him escape further north; he also provides the first instance Bok experiences of Arab antislavery conscience. Two months of hiding in the driver's family apartment substantially alter his perceptions of Arabs, changing his initial fear into an alliance with his host. An escape from slavery is an expansion of experience and cultural consciousness, one that fugitive slave narratives record repeatedly. As Bok later notes in his encounters with antagonistic Arab students in the United States, his escape, shelter, and eventual ticket to Khartoum was the work of Abdah and his wife, who believed that their neighbors had no right to enslave human beings. Like other fugitive narratives, this one provides much more than a personal autobiography; it maps out a politics of respect and ethnic interdependence.

In Khartoum, the Dinka community reappears as a sheltering environment. Another Dinka singles out Bok at the bus station and leads him to Jabarona, a heavily-Dinka neighborhood in the ed-Da'ein shantytown outside Khartoum. Jabarona provides more than another shelter; its refugees from Dinkaland, many of whom had similar stories of raids and captivity, provide an assembly of stories that constitute a collective history. Unlike Bok, who remains a political naïf, other Dinka know that paid informers permeate their refugee camp and that telling stories of slavery attracts hostile government attention. Security police picked up Bok after eleven days in Jabarona, whipped him to force him to deny that he had been enslaved, and released him from prison seven months later without having troubled themselves with charges.

Global Fugitive Slave

With a black market passport, Bok left Sudan for Egypt, a route used by tens of thousands of Dinka seeking UN recognition as political refugees. It is at this point after arriving in Cairo that Bok's narrative takes official form in English, the language used by UN officials to record, classify and select between stories in order to decide who will and will not receive the magic designation of 'political refugee' that will enable re-settlement in a Western country. The stage is so crucial that 'the English teacher,' another Dinka refugee with sufficient English skills to fill out application forms, becomes the key counselor for fellow Dinkas searching for harbor beyond Cairo. This first version of Bok's narrative, framed together with Franco Majok, whose designation as 'English teacher' was more that of cultural guide than language instructor, was the basic draft of the pre-Cairo section of Escape from Slavery.

This process indicates an important feature of the new global slave narrative: not only does it appear in what becomes Bok's third language, well before he knows that new language, but it comes into being as part of an international bureaucratic document produced by translating the story of a citizen of an under-developed country, a citizen whose enslavement violated nominal legal protections against slavery. English becomes the avenue of access to minimal international protections, a troubling prospect given that human rights cannot be effectively conditioned on knowledge of a specific language if they are to have meaning.

While international aid agencies and human rights organizations are producing a new bureaucratic literature of slavery in their English-language interviews and administrative reports, slavery happens in a chaotic multiplicity of vernaculars. The reductive neutralism here is not that of William Still, an African American conductor on the Underground Railroad whose transcriptions of interviews with fugitive slaves for the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee during the 1850s had a crisp and self-protective coolness. Rather, it is the neutralism of many neo-slave narratives that derive from an administrative environment where the narrative must fit specific recognizable criteria in order to afford assistance to the refugee. English translation has its uses, but slave narratives need publication in their own languages, and as English-language readers we need to recognize the missing emotional depth of translation. How differently might this story read in Dinka?

Escape from Slavery - book jacketDuring the approximately year-and-a-half Bok spent in Cairo, going through processes that eventually took him to Fargo, North Dakota, under sponsorship from Lutheran Social Services, he acquired a familiarity with both English and Black Entertainment Television. This autobiography is not only a slave narrative; it is a story of immigration and Americanization. Exploring Wal-Mart's mystery aisles, doing night shifts in a plastics factory, cheering at televised Lakers games, discovering the meaning of winter in North Dakota and moving to Ames, Iowa. The Americanization of Francis Bok was proceeding with fair normality until the American Anti-Slavery Group in Boston recruited him as a circuit speaker. In a short while, the AASG had arranged the church meetings, media interviews, and congressional testimony that made Francis Bok the best-known ex-slave in the United States.

Antislavery Culture Wars

The AASG has adopted an all-inclusive and bi-partisan approach to its antislavery work; among its Sudan Campaign supporters were the late Jesse Helms, congressional representative Barbara Lee, and the political stretch in-between. Since there are no open advocates of chattel slavery in the United States, bi-partisan opposition to slavery is not an accomplishment per se. This approach does have tactical utility in terms of foreign policy advocacy; however, it can also lead to refusal to distinguish between actors and motives. When Bok describes a meeting with Helms, then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he wonders whether the tears in the senator's eyes are from compassion for slaves in Sudan or the emotion generated by Bok telling his story in front of a group of Colorado schoolchildren. Other readers, who remember Helms as the 1948 States Rights Party presidential candidate for American apartheid, are more apt to wonder whether the senator's tears were for Giemma Abdullah's property loss. If Jesse Helms condemned slavery - who doesn't? - and promoted passage of the Sudan Peace Act, how is this supposed to cancel out his historic advocacy of racial segregation, or across-the-board service to a far-right agenda? Opposition to African slavery is not a magic bullet that annuls a lifetime of racialist politics; quite the contrary, it serves as a foreign token and philanthropic exercise that cannot camouflage domestic policies that protect accumulated social privileges of descendants of a white master class. In the distant fields of Sudan, concerned Americans can relieve themselves of domestic burdens of race and power that have remained fundamentally unresolved since a time when it was this nation engaged in civil war.

Contemporary antislavery posits that it is a movement to which all can subscribe, whether left or right, regardless of conflict over other issues. Since slavery is universally illegal, antislavery has become universalist in its claims for political support. And yet such universalism would render antislavery unique among political movements, as it is there is no known social issue that can claim an absolute consensus. Rather, and here I am tentative and cautious, because antislavery is an historic issue that has re-appeared (not that it ever disappeared as a social phenomenon) on twenty-first century political agendas, an achieved historic consensus has been shifted forward. But this is a past consensus and not a present-day one, so that an artificially complete full-spectrum coalition of opinion retains cohesion. An issue on which there is no public disagreement is not an'issue' per se.

Such issues of political and organizational motivation and ethics arise in the book, as in the global antislavery movement.

There have been strong and unjustified prejudices against some actors in the antislavery campaign in Sudan, principally the Christian Solidarity International organization based in Switzerland and Christian Solidarity Worldwide in Britain, which have purchased large groups of slaves from Arab traders in order to emancipate and re-locate them. UNICEF has heavily criticized the work of CSI and its director, John Eibner, for redemption payments that, it argues, only encourage the slave trade. Officials of Anti-Slavery International, Human Rights Watch, and Save the Children Fund similarly have condemned the practice of slave redemption on grounds that purchasing slaves condones the practice and that it could lead to a revitalization of slave-catching.

This dilemma is not a new one in antislavery ethics. The effectiveness of Frederick Douglass in the abolitionist movement, after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act threatened his freedom, came about in large measure because wealthy British supporters paid his purchase price. In his 1855 autobiography, Douglass replied to some complaints about his purchase and manumission:

Some of my uncompromising anti-slavery friends in this country failed to see the wisdom of this arrangement, and were not pleased that I consented to it, even by my silence. They thought it a violation of anti-slavery principles — conceding a right of property in man — and a wasteful expenditure of money. On the other hand, viewing it simply in the light of a ransom, or as money extorted by a robber, and my liberty of more value than one hundred and fifty pounds sterling, I could not see either a violation of the laws of morality, or those of economy, in the transaction.

Lady Caroline Cox, a Conservative peer in the House of Lords who has spent over 100,000 pounds sterling freeing more than 2,000 slaves at an average 45 pounds apiece during various trips to Sudan undertaken in cooperation with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, is a descendent of this class of British moral reformers. Yet even where there is strong distaste at such philanthropic adventurism played out with private capital by a member of the British social elite who takes up slave rescue as exotic overseas social work, it is equally legitimate to ask why international governmental organizations and well-funded NGOs have accomplished far less in their own initiatives? Since international aid agencies have never fielded a credible antislavery program in the region, it is difficult to see a rational basis for objecting to redemption payments that have liberated over 80,000 Dinka and other tribal peoples. Dickens' ridicule in Bleak House of Mrs. Jellyby's "telescopic philanthropy" directed from England towards Africa still retains a stinging appropriateness, one that applies equally to private or public parties.

An underlying objection to such slave redemption projects appears to lie in a culture war between secular and religious activism. An evangelical worldview typified by General Boykin's 'my god is bigger than your false idol' Christian triumphalism provides a cornerstone for the Bush administration's imperial edifice. The heavy-handed religiosity and evangelistic missionizing of Christian Solidarity International represents anathema to those who have resisted a faith-based take-over of foreign policy by the religious right and its agenda under the Bush administration, which lectures Africans to practice chastity and defunds media campaigns that promote condoms. However, objections to positive contributions from evangelical Christian organizations also smack of religious prejudice that judges actions on their cultural origin rather than on the acts themselves. A reasonable balancing test of interests and opposition to religious discrimination can provide common ground. Evangelical Christians have had a strong historical presence in antislavery work, and Bok makes clear that he counts himself among these faithful. Passages of religious testimony punctuate Escape from Slavery and, as can be found in many other slave narratives, Bok reports that his growing religious faith provided him with sustenance in the face of apparent abandonment.

Differences of religious, non- or anti-religious conscience are irrelevant to the work of ending a culture of kidnapping and enslavement, work that must be evaluated on its practical results. While payment of redemption monies for human beings is deeply offensive as a matter of principle and constitutes fraud on its very face, actual exercise of ownership of slaves is vastly more offensive for its cruelty and physical abuse. Adherence to strict principle against payment for captives, a principle that certainly would not be held were these children from Europe or the United States, represents a rigid standard that operates against black Africans.

As for Bok, he appears undecided on this hotly-contested issue and the antislavery culture war from which it emerges. He objects to payment to slave traders, but values Eibner's efforts and believes the controversy diverts attention and energies from assembling coherent international effort to end chattel slavery in Sudan. Bok's politics ultimately are those of dispute reconciliation in the interests of the larger cause of Dinka slaves, estimated to number over one hundred thousand.

Bok's afterword contains a pollyanna-ish and slightly worshipful account of his meeting with President Bush at the October 2002 signing of the Sudan Peace Act. He marvels that a once-enslaved herd-boy can shake hands with the president of the United States. Bok's leading concern has become to mobilize American public opinion and political power in behalf of southern Sudanese peoples, not to criticize the politics of his new country. As an ex-slave, Bok states, he lives under obligation to those who remain slaves and to work for their freedom. To be an ex-slave is to regain a capacity to act upon independent conscience, and Bok is now in the midst of establishing his independence through education.

Human Trafficking and the Empire

Today human trafficking has become the new human rights mantra in Washington, with significant administrative resources and annual reports now devoted to the issue by the Department of State. The adoption of human trafficking as a leading policy issue, however genuine the outrage and repugnance, has been window dressing for a Bush administration policy shop that daily traffics in the human rights violations engendered by its imperial military adventurism. After he finished defending the invasion of Iraq before a cold audience at his United Nations appearance in September 2003, President Bush spent nearly the last third of his speech addressing human trafficking and slavery. Mobilizing the image of the suffering slave is one of the oldest political tricks of post-Enlightenment imperialism, one that proponents of nineteenth-century European empires in Africa and Asia frequently employed in behalf of their projects.

This same rhetorical strategy conceals the de-linkage of slavery from capitalism and its systemic demand for ever-cheaper labor, one that culminates in neo-slavery in economies struggling to compete under the terms of free-market globalization. When the New York Times reports on industrial slavery among women factory workers in development regions of China, this is not a phenomenon that official US policy discussions recognize as part of a continuum of slavery. The fact that Bok was a wage-less slave in a pastoralist economy does not significantly distinguish him from unwaged, starvation wage, or sub-minimum wage earners in industrial economies and legal systems that treat labor no differently than did Giemma Abdullah, as a possession at the disposal of capital-owners and subject to control through private, corporate or state violence. Making the link between the inseparable histories and violence of capitalism and slavery is crucial work, but will not be found in either this book or AASG's carefully framed mainstream message.

The essence of a broader conception of the issue would lie in trafficking and the Empire, where trafficking represents de-legitimized commodity markets while 'free markets' represent legal exchanges presumed free of human rights abuse. 'Trafficking' is a closely delimited set of proscribed commodities — human slaves, Third World border-crossing laborers, prostitutes, drugs, contraband weapons — that the Empire polices, or provides with surreptitious market privilege. The difference between 'traffic' and 'free market' is the difference between old and new markets.

The unanswered question of Escape from Slavery remains 'who is a slave?' There are far more than twenty-seven million in need of emancipation. Who are they? Reading the contemporary literature of slavery is the beginning of an answer to that question.

Published by St. Martin's Press.

Joe Lockard is assistant professor of American literature at Arizona State University, director of the Antislavery Literature Project, and a Bad Subjects editor.

Some previous Bad Subjects essays by this author include:
Lockard and Schalit: Protest Culture, Neo-liberalism, and Contingent Human Rights (2004)
Iraq War Culture (2003)
The Disappearances of Academia (2002)
Social Fear and the Commodification of Terrorism (2002)
The American Empire in Televised Crisis (2001)
Britney Spears, Victorian Chastity and Brand-Name Virginity (2001)

Credits: Slave labor on the White Sea Canal, 1932-33. Courtesy Memorial Society, Moscow.
Four Korean 'comfort women' detained in China, 1945. Courtesy US National Archives.
Escape from Slavery — book jacket. Courtesy St. Martin's Press.

Copyright © 2004 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.