Monday, December 3, 2012

Half the Sky

A couple of weeks ago, my teenage daughter and I went to Ohio for a long weekend visit with our close friends there. In addition to our usual activities (shopping too much, eating too much), we planned to take a roadtrip to Cincinnati to visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

I expected to be moved by the experience and I was. There was an actual "Slave pen," the building in which slaves were corralled like livestock until they were sent out to the auction block. There were dioramas and paintings depicting slave conditions. There were artifacts and dramatizations of individual stories — a young boy who left his family to flee north; a girl who hid in rafters above her grandmother's porch for seven years rather than be raped by her master anymore. There were inspiring stories about abolitionists, black and white, who risked everything to attain and secure the right to freedom for everyone.

I expected to be moved by a truly horrible and shameful chapter of our country's past. But, I didn't expect so much of the museum to be devoted to the world's current slave trade and to the plight of millions of women denied education, healthcare and freedom today.

In the exhibit "Invisible: Slavery Today," we learned that — right now — an estimated 12-27 million people are literally enslaved. As defined by the museum, 'Each victim is induced into slave-like exploitation through fraud, force or coercion. They are subject to physical abuse and/or psychological intimidation. And, they are not readily able to free themselves from their situation.' 

It is hard to accept (or imagine) that conditions today are in some ways worse than they were for enslaved Africans in the 18th and 19th century. Technically, there are no "owners," so there is no accountability whatsoever. And, slaves can be purchased for as little as $100 (compared to 10 times that much in the 1850s). So they are no longer valued property. They are disposable.

The scope of the issue was mind-numbing. So, to drive home the human aspect of all of this, the museum included individual stories: narratives of real people (many of them children) who had been abducted, coerced, blackmailed or tricked. Many were savagely raped, beaten or drugged into submission. And, while the bulk of the stories took place in other parts of the world, there were some that started — or at least ended — right here in the U.S. 

Walking through this exhibit, I watched my daughter with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I didn't want to crowd her as she discovered these terrible truths. But, as a mother, my natural inclination was to shield her from them. I think we all left this particular exhibit feeling overwhelmed and absolutely helpless. 

Emotionally exhausted (and physically tired too — the museum is massive), we stopped in the gift shop on our way out. Most of the items for sale were handcrafts made by women in developing countries. (There was one truly tasteless item: a souvenir shot glass that seemed profoundly inappropriate.) But, there were also books that related to the museum's exhibits. That's where I found Half the Sky.

Half the Sky is written by Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The title comes from Mao Zedong's declaration that "Women hold up half the sky." The book guides us through true stories of women who have survived unthinkable situations and, perhaps more importantly, steps that can be taken by governments, non-profit organizations and even individuals to improve conditions all over the world. 

I can't recommend this book highly enough. I devoured it and my daughter will read it next. She isn't always keen on the books I suggest — sheesh, is that an understatement! — but she left the slavery exhibit feeling the same sense of despair that I did. As soon as she's read it, we'll look at the resources listed in the back and see how we might make a difference together. 

You (and your teenagers) can learn more about Half the Sky here. 

1 comment:

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