This is a response to the above debate.
The editors of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery have convened a provocative debate on the question of human trafficking awareness campaigns. We are especially heartened by the commentators responding ‘no’. While some valuable points have been raised, there nonetheless remains a critical yet neglected problem of representation at work here. To date, none of the commentators have addressed the enduring structure of racial slavery. It is impossible for any anti-trafficking campaign to effectively address the problem of human suffering while it remains unaware of how it is haunted by the spectre of Africans in the ship’s hold and how it continues to parasitically feed off of the history and legacies of racial slavery.
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As we have asserted previously (i.e., here and here) the modern world has been an ongoing crisis for black people. Contemporary anti-slavery politics, much like abolitionism of yesteryear, draws ethical sustenance from objectified black bodies for non-black ones, all the while consistently displaying a failure of solidarity with actual black people and their liberation struggles.
It is impossible for any anti-trafficking campaign to effectively address the problem of human suffering while it remains unaware of how it is haunted by the spectre of Africans in the ship’s hold.
This fundamental problem only seems to grow as visual representations of African migrants in the Mediterranean basin expand in recent years. Two notable additions include the Italian dramatic film Terraferma (2011) and the documentary Fuocoammare/Fire at Sea (2016), a 2017 Academy Award nominee.
Fuocoammare’s non-fiction narrative closely tracks the fictional one in Terraferma. The plight of African migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean is contrasted with the daily life of Italian fishing villagers whose intergenerational repose with the sea is rudely interrupted by desperate, drowning, and dangerous black people. This narrative centres the plight of Italian youth who are symbolically lost at sea as the waning fishing lifestyle of their island is dramatically overturned by black bodies adrift in their world.
In Terraferma, a young man’s efforts to woo a woman from Milan vacationing on the island are thwarted when he repels African migrants who appear out of the dark sea from nowhere. The migrants are desperate to board his boat, but the young man leaves them to drown. After the migrants’ dead bodies wash ashore the next day, the young man finds the conviction to smuggle three Africans to the Italian mainland. In doing so, he rescues his own injured manhood from his sexual frustrations and from the economic dead-end facing him on the island (which are, in fact, one and the same).
Beyond the narrative structure that it shares with Terraferma, Fuocoammare is notable for its use of captured video footage in which the camera’s languid lens betrays the pleasures of the horrific images depicted. In the last quarter of the film, the camera lingers on the deck of a coastguard cutter and in the hold of a migrant ship, graphically depicting piles of deceased African migrants, as if the severely burned, starved, and dehydrated bodies; intake centres; and modern-day baracoons (detention centres) featured earlier in the film were not gratuitous enough.
The images of black death in Fuocoammare are uninhibited and directly connected to the representational sound of death. The resident wails, gasps, and deadening silence fill the auditory frame of the film, forcing the viewer to scrutinise the images to verify whether the subjects are alive, dying, or already dead.
At one point in the film, for instance, the camera turns to an African woman, whose naked body fills the entire screen. Her black skin serves as a screen for projecting black death – the very thing that organises the modern world. Dead or dying objects set the tone for both films, deploying fungible blackness to animate the ethical dilemmas faced by Italians: that is, the African migrant crisis is a crisis of civilisation for Europeans.
Dead or dying objects set the tone for both films, deploying fungible blackness to animate the ethical dilemmas faced by Italians: that is, the African migrant crisis is a crisis of civilization for Europeans.
These images force us to recall the lurid history of lynching photography. The historical analogy between the visual images of anti-trafficking campaigns and the recorded spectacles of lynching do not obtain on the basis of intentionality – the lynching photographer was a triumphant participant, whereas the anti-trafficking filmmaker is supposedly a concerned observer.
Both intentions, however, are expressions of a general culture of sadism in which black people are positioned as both victims and spectators of their own violation. To borrow from David Marriott’s analysis of lynching photography, can any black person resist the implicit identification with the dead, drowning, abject black body, written into an image which reproduces the fundamental divisions of human and sub-human life by showing white men rescuing (policing)?
We mentioned ‘piles’ of Africans earlier, for indeed that is the implication of these images of anti-trafficking: black people as inanimate objects to be collected, refused, and returned from whence they came, back into the sea. Black death is no loss because black life is no life at all; one’s life must have meaning as such in order for one’s death to matter. These films illuminate that, while the movement of Africans across the Mediterranean in the present period does not occur under the same conditions of chattel captivity as it did from the eighth through the nineteenth centuries, Africans are indeed migrating today under terms of a re-elaborated captivity.
On the empirical level, there is the physical and sexual violence, the various states of confinement endured along the journey, and the exploitation by traffickers – not to mention the fact that the contemporary conditions in Africa that lead to migration are themselves the product of the forced removal of millions of black people from the continent during the slave trade.
Black death is no loss because black life is no life at all; one’s life must have meaning as such in order for one’s death to matter.
The black struggle for self-determination (of which contemporary migration is a feature), moreover, encounters a level of suffering beyond what the empirical can acknowledge. After a millennium of racial slavery, bondage has become synonymous with blackness, and today, non-black humanity remains tied to anti-black violence and to the denouncements of it. In other words, African migrants are captive to blackness’ objectified and dehumanised status that guides depictions of black suffering and any interventions marshalled against it. It is a deathly way of being alive, to exist in the collective conscious as sub-human no matter what you are doing or what has been done to you.
As a result, black people are categorically precluded from being victims of anything, including trafficking. At best, black migration registers only as a refugee crisis – people out-of-place – and not as part of the trafficking problem. An interesting state of affairs, by the way, given that it was the legal traffic in black bodies that underwrote the formation of the modern world and continues to undergird every human conflict on the planet to this day.
Humanitarianism, whether for refugees or trafficked persons, thus remains one means by which black victimhood is refused and black self-determination foreclosed. For confirmation of our argument here against these anti-black images we need only consider the recent mobile phone video of a migrant from the Gambia drowning in Venice’s Grand Canal. The video footage shows a black man drowning and calling for help in the canal only a few yards from a boat full of tourists. Rather than save the man’s life, observers instead made keepsakes of his death on their mobile phones, documenting as well the numerous racist sexual epithets rained down on him in a cathartic act of initiation and absolution (in Marriott's words), as with the lynch mob’s consumption of black flesh.
In a sadistic twist on Frantz Fanon’s insight in Wretched of the Earth that the final stage of genocide looks a lot like suicide, news reports of the incident in the Grand Canal speculated that the man in fact did not want to be saved. The discourse on anti-trafficking or about refugees on the threshold of the West displace from view the centrality of blackness and its abject, fungible, and structurally vulnerable status from the basic foundation of modern society.