An English 411 class discussion about “Oroonoko,” Aphra Behn’s 1688 story of an enslaved African prince, inspired a group of undergraduate students to help stop modern-day human trafficking. After viewing 18th-century slavery artifacts at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, the class discussion moved from slave literature to contemporary human trafficking. Working with the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, several students in Dr. Misty Anderson’s English 411 class organized the “Human Trafficking on Rocky Top event” to bring awareness to the local sex trafficking industry, its effects on society and ways to help end modern-day slavery. In her own words, student Becca Payton discusses the planning of that event:
As an English major, I am learning to get inside a text: to understand its hidden meanings, find symbols, make connections, and analyze its implications. However, this semester we went outside the text. In English 411, my classmates and I took 18th century literature and made it apply to today’s world. Oronooko, a piece about slavery, translated into an event on human trafficking in Knoxville. Over 300 people attended the event, and as I stood in the back of the packed room and watched, I realized that this was the purpose of college. Not only has the English department given me the best professors from whom I learn about novels and poems, but it has given me the professors from whom I learn about the world and myself. My professors in this department have taught me that college isn’t only about expanding your knowledge of literature but expanding your mind. Planning the event Human Trafficking on Rocky Top opened my eyes and mind to a real societal issue and, more than that, gave me the chance to do something about it.