Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Factory Fire in Bangledesh Exposes Slavery In Our Closets

"Slavery In Our Closet And On Our Conscience," Anne Farrow's Commentary from The Hartford Courant, on 30 November 2012 --  A previous version of this story incorrectly said that Tommy Hilfiger clothing was being made in the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory that burned.

As a student of slavery in New England during the 18th and 19th centuries, I am heartened and fascinated by the growing outrage over the link between American retailers and the fate of the 112 people, mostly women, who died last week in a garment factory fire in Bangladesh. They were young and poor and many of them burned to death.

The ashes of the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. company had barely cooled before investigators found ready-to-be-shipped clothing bearing the labels of Disney, the Gap and Wal-Mart's Faded Glory.

Seeing spokesmen for America's largest merchandiser furiously backpedaling about Wal-Mart's relationship with this particular company is a good thing. There is a human responsibility at issue here, and it cannot be explained away or denied.

The women who died halfway around the globe, in the flames and smoke, are on our conscience. We are linked to their suffering, and to the suffering of the estimated 400 other garment workers who have died working in factories in Bangladesh since 2006.

The growing anger over the unnecessary deaths at Tazreen Fashions says to me that we do, at last, recognize our link to the rest of the world. And in a world that is increasingly fragile and increasingly interwoven, economy to economy, we are bound to the women who labor long hours and make the equivalent of $36 per month so that we can wear high-quality pinstripe shirts for what was once the price of a cheap shirt in a discount store.

It seems so clear now that the choice we make in a garment is also the acceptance of another's exploitation and, in the case of the Tazreen factory, their virtual enslavement.

I wish we could see our involvement with American slavery in as clear a light. In terms of evolution, our national role in slavery, and in the largest involuntary immigration in human history, is probably less than a second. But in our retelling of that history, we have placed that story in the immeasurably long ago, as if it cannot be recovered.

Bangladeshis prepare to bury the bodies of a part of the victims of Saturday’s fire in a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Pavel Rahman)

What would America be like if we accepted responsibility for the lives that our ancestors stole? What if, life by life by life, we imagined the Africans taken forever from their villages and forced to help settlers create their Eden?

Philosopher William James believed that there is a moral component to memory, and that embedded in remembering is a responsibility to make the world better.

Workers of Tazreen Fashions Ltd, who survived the harrowing fire tragedy last week, queued up on the Nischintopur School premises at Ashulia off the city Monday to enlist their names. — Focus Bangla

The enslaved black men and women who helped make America are still waiting to be acknowledged, still waiting for us to recognize them and their backbreaking effort at making this new world. We brought them here and used them for what we wanted. How can we think we owe them nothing?

The most haunting image from the fire at the Bangladesh factory is that of a young woman's arm, waving from a window covered with a metal grid. Her arm is already black from smoke and fire and, almost certainly, she did not survive. But she called for our attention. She said, "I am here." (source: Hartford Courant)

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