William & Mary

New course looks at long history of slavery

  • New course:
    New course:  Jessica Stephens, visiting assistant professor of classical studies William & Mary, is teaching a new course on comparative slavery from ancient to modern times this semester.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Pretty much every human society from ancient to modern times has had some form of involuntary servitude, and a William & Mary professor has set out to compare and contrast them.

Jessica Stephens, visiting assistant professor of classical studies, is teaching a new course on comparative slavery this semester. The COLL 300 class is not only new to W&M, but is also a rarity at other institutions, according to Stephens.

“I think the reason for that is, of course, it’s a very challenging course to teach,” Stephens said. “We started in basically the Bronze Age, so around 3000 BCE, and are coming all the way up into the present, and looking at various forms of slavery in different societies all over the world in that time period. So it is truly a comparative course in that we’re looking at multiple different societies, different places and all over the place.”

Working chronologically and spending a class on each civilization, the course started in the ancient Near East.

“We can’t cover it all in a semester,” Stephens said. “So I’ve tried to pick examples that show the breadth and depth of human slavery and broaden my students’ horizons about this problem because, of course, they are very, for the most part, culturally centered in the American South when they think of slavery.

“And the university offers great classes on slavery in Virginia, slavery in the American South, also in South America and the Caribbean. So I wanted to broaden that conception of what involuntary servitude would look like.”

Stephens is a Greek and Roman historian with a research interest in ancient slavery. She points out that societies that contained a huge population of slaves include Greece and Rome alongside the American South, Brazil and only a couple of other places.

While glad that many students previously have studied slavery as it relates to U.S. history, Stephens said the topic is a much more complicated issue.

“When I saw the COLL 300 theme for this fall, which is 'Bodies that Matter,' I thought well, what other topic would fit that theme as well as slavery?” Stephens said. “Because of course these bodies matter tremendously for economic exploitation, for prestige, having more slaves often shows that you are a powerful, important person — wealthy at times.

“But in social ideas, and in social contexts, these bodies don’t matter at all. These are marginalized people. We talked a lot about sort of this philosophical approach of what it is to be a slave, what does it mean when you are not a part of society, when you are separated, marginalized, when you’ve experienced what our textbook calls a social death. And that’s often what slavery is kind of categorized as.”

Stephens assigned students to write a paper explaining how they currently benefit from involuntary servitude. They wrote about clothing manufacturers in South Asia, fruits and vegetables harvested by undocumented laborers and their electronic devices containing cobalt mined by children in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Cosmo Cothran-Bray ’20, a San Diego native, wrote about the mass exploitation and forced labor/human trafficking of undocumented immigrants and migrant workers in Southern California.

“My findings were truly unbelievable and deeply moving, so much so that I realized I cannot simply go on without doing something,” Cothran-Bray said. “As a result, I am currently negotiating with my former high school to be able to give a full presentation and talk at one of the school's weekly assemblies over winter break in early January.”

Class discussions are a big part of the course and have led it in more of a philosophical direction, according to Stephens.

Giselle Ferguson ’19 said that part was unexpected for her.

“I did expect us to compare practices of slavery in different societies across history, but we are also examining how involuntary servitude still exists today in no small capacity,” Ferguson said. “Considering this and the fact that slavery has existed across time and location throughout human history, much of our work involves self-reflection and the heavy question of why slavery is such a pervasive feature of human society — issues that I did not expect in taking a history class.”

Students are looking at the larger questions.

“We have lots of discussion about what it means that all of these societies have some form of human involuntary servitude,” Stephens said. “What is it? Is it something in us? Do we have an innate need to oppress, marginalize, enslave? And that’s a question that has resonated deeply with my students.

“We keep coming back to it, and it has made many of them really uncomfortable, as it has me. This is a complicated question and one that makes us worry about what it is to be human in some ways.”

The topic not only is in keeping with the COLL 300 call to take students out of their comfort zones but also has led to research turning into action.

“One aspect of that is they’re now starting to wonder what they can do — what it means to make better-informed purchasing decisions,” Stephens said. “If they buy their coffee or their chocolate from specific purveyors who ensure lack of child labor or coerced labor. What it means to not necessarily upgrade their iPhone when the new release comes out, but think about hanging onto their current model instead of feeding that endless need for cobalt or for rare earth minerals that are often mined and collected by people who are not free.

“My students’ interest in thinking about how to address this and what legislative options they have, what purchasing options they have, and what options they have to educate people has been truly surprising and delightful, and both at times.”