Academia wasn't in Matthew Mason's bloodline. His dad sold insurance and his mother was a social worker. Mason and two of his siblings (he's the oldest of four brothers), however, are academics. After considering a career in journalism, Mason found his calling in the past.
"My history classes were helping me better explain the world around me," he said.
In anticipation of his visit to Boise on Thursday, Feb. 2, to speak at The Fettuccine Forum, Mason talked about how he spends much of his time chronicling the politics of slavery, both historic and modern.
What event or events dialed up your desire to be a historian?
I was at the University of Utah in the early '90s. It was the era of the riots in Los Angeles, it was the era of the O.J. trial, and some of the history classes I was taking on early American history, exploring the origins of slavery in America, seemed to be 100 percent relevant when it came to the America we were all witnessing.
Isn't it interesting that the debates from the O.J. era resurfaced in 2016 through two high-profile television shows?
Absolutely, and on top of all of that was the very contemporary debate about race during the 2016 political cycle.
I don't think I've seen too many historians on picket lines or considered them to be activists.
A group I'm very much involved with, Historians Against Slavery, confronts contemporary slavery. Yes, there are a lot of great organizations working against slavery, and while we may not be on picket lines or out there rescuing victims, we can host gatherings where we bring scholars and activists together.
Have you tried to figure out why contemporary slavery doesn't seem to be anywhere near the top of list of concerns in America?
That has everything to do with all of the other issues competing for our attention, but those issues grab our attention for 24 hours and then we're off to the next thing.
So what's the secret sauce in trying to get people to care more?
It's about caring about slavery in the context of things you already care about. Do you care about the West? Fair trade? Women's rights? The rights of workers? They're all connected to slavery.
What behaviors might we change to make a significant difference?
Consumer boycotts work. Look at chocolate and how slave labor has been a part of that supply chain. Some brands were attached to child labor or slave labor in their cocoa production. A major consumer backlash forced those companies to reverse their course.
Is the connection between pornography and modern slavery as strong as ever?
The studies of those links are only beginning but, yes, pornography is driving the demand for sex trafficking.
How does the current shift of the political climate inform our nation's activism, or lack thereof, on the issue of modern slavery?
Actually, it's a bipartisan issue that a lot of people care about. There was a recent bill to fund anti-human trafficking efforts that passed through Congress and it was one of the very few bills that found support from both sides of the political aisle. There's a strong reason for conservatives and liberals to fight modern slavery.
It has been quite a while since a formal entity has actually voiced support for slavery. All of that changed with ISIS, yes?
The link between ISIS and modern slavery is very real. Look at the world's refugee crisis. When people become vulnerable, exploiters move in. It's not surprising at all that the refugee crisis leads to all kinds of groups taking advantage of them. That includes slavery.