Associate Professor, Transnational Studies
Keith Griffler is an Associate Professor in the Department of Transnational Studies. He joined the department in 2005, coming from the University of Cincinnati where he was Associate Professor of African American Studies. His research and teaching span a broad range of topics in the history and political economy of Africa and its diaspora, together with the historical investigation of the nexus of race, gender and class in the making of the modern world. He is author of Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley, a history of the African American front line communities in the port cities and towns along the Ohio which gave the impetus for the formation and growth of the region’s underground freedom movement. In it, I emphasize the central role of African Americans, who organize the movement through their flight paths northward and by attracting white allies to what I call the African American underground resistance, a paradigm that has been adopted by much of the subsequent scholarship.
Professor Griffler has just completed a book tentatively titled A New Slavery for Women: Gender, Slavery and Antislavery in the Twentieth Century, which offers the first history of servile marriage together with the successful campaign by women activists to have it banned under international law as a new form of slavery. The book takes it title from the term “new slavery” coined by abolitionists in the early twentieth century to refer to new permutations of slavery then springing up on the ashes of the old. The most prevalent involved the victims of what amounted to a twentieth century African slave trade exclusively in women. In the 1920s and 1930s, large numbers of African women endured abduction, brutal assault and rape in the name of marriage. British colonial authorities encouraged and enforced the power of husbands and fathers who converted traditional marital practice into a cash transaction involving the buying and selling of teenage girls. The antislavery movement approved, and the newly created League of Nations tasked with suppressing such modern day slavery refused its protection to African women. Like the earlier generation of abolitionists inspired to join the Underground Railroad by the daring escapes of enslaved African Americans, a group of British women was stirred to action by the furious and at times violent resistance of their “African sisters.” Dubbed by British government officials “a monstrous regiment of women,” they boldly challenged the world’s largest empire, the framers of two international slavery conventions, and the antislavery movement. We are not accustomed to think that African women, spawning a transnational alliance, could intervene decisively to ensure that human rights embraced all women despite the overt racism and sexism of early international law. This book reveals how African women and their British allies achieved that remarkable feat, forever changing our notions of slavery and freedom for women.
Professor Griffler’s next book project is Common Bonds of the Black World: Race and Gender in the Making of the Modern World Economy. It investigates the historical continuities of the racial slavery of the Americas and the “new slavery” in colonial Africa from the 1890s to World War II. Its concern is not with the question of whether we should call these racial labor systems—or indeed their genealogical descendants in the present—“slavery.” It is, rather, with the fundamental roles of race and gender in the making of the modern world economy whose legacy can be found in so much of present-day slavery. Behind slavery in the Americas and the “new slavery” of colonial Africa lay a racial and gendered organization of land, labor and the production process that forged common bonds of the black world. More fundamentally, investigating the economic significance of race that survived emancipation uncovers a vital chapter in the construction of the modern world economy. It involves the surprising reasons behind the use of unfree labor concealed behind our assumptions about racial slaveries and so-called “unskilled labor”—a categorical expression of what turn out to be raced and gendered assumptions. We discover in the rise of the “new slavery” in colonial Africa not merely the story of important roots of the kinds of slavery we find in the world today but more fundamentally an important economic basis of the modern world itself. In exploring capitalism as an economy of knowledge systems alongside that of value, this account takes up this centrality of the marginalized in the making of the modern world economy.
Professor Griffler co-wrote, co-produced and co-directed a historical documentary, “Wade in the Water,” which looks at the journeys of fugitive slaves traveling through the Ohio Valley. The documentary won a number of national awards, including first place in the National Broadcasting Society’s National Professional Production category in 2002. He serves on the Advisory Board of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. His work has been funded by a Charles Phelps Taft Fellowship and a major grant from the Ohio Historical Society.