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Friday, March 25, 2011

Remembering the Victims of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Today is the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. On this day we pause to remember the untold numbers of African women, children and men who were victimized in the Transatlantic slave trade over a period of four hundred years. Although there is sometimes debate about just how many persons were transported, one thing is clear: it numbered in the many millions, as illustrated by much of the data in Emory University's Transatlantic Slavery Database. In memory of the victims, the U.N. General Assembly, in its resolution 62/122 of 17 December 2007, declared 25 March the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, to be observed annually. The resolution called for the establishment of an outreach program to inculcate in future generations the “causes, consequences and lessons of the transatlantic slave trade, and to communicate the dangers of racism and prejudice”.

The specific goal of this day is to honor the memory of those Africans and African-ancestored people who suffered and died as a result of being enslaved, especially those who underwent the horrors of the Middle Passage. However, in making this declaration, Member States recalled that the treatment of African-ancestored slaves is also at the foundation of many present-day situations of social and economic inequality, injustice, racism and hatred aimed at African-ancestored people. This is a day not only to remember the past, but to promote contemporary awareness of the continuing ills of this particular form of slavery.

We might well wonder how something of the magnitude of the African slave trade could be little known or at risk of being forgotten. The problem lies not, however, in whether we are ignorant of or forget about slavery, but in the nature of what we know and in the manner in which we remember slavery. In the case of African-ancestored slavery in the West, history and memory are often contentious distant kinsman instead of close siblings. There is, for instance, a tendency to historicize African-ancestored slavery as an institution instead of simply (or complexly) remembering it as a series of ongoing events with very real, material consequences for individual and collective groups of enslaved black people. As scholar Pierre Nora wrote in his discussion of the relationship between memory and history, memory and history are far from synonymous; they appear often to be in fundamental opposition. The opposition is between an actual past phenomenon and a representation of the past phenomenon. The treatment of African-ancestored people during slavery and in its aftermath is part of a somber past. This past is not, however, personal to African-ancestored people themselves, or to former slave societies, but to the entire world. African women, children and men were removed from their homes and introduced into a system of bondage that was not only sometimes violent and capricious but which also deprived them of the essence of their humanity: freedom and hope for future.

Bridging the history and memory of slavery poses a number of problems. Perhaps chief among them is how not to stand in judgment on a slave past that in some measures defies critique by its very historicity: 1811 was not 2011, and it is at best facile and misguided to bring to bear on the slave past the norms that guide us in present times. Nonetheless, African-ancestored slavery remains a searing memory that scorches the fabric of modernity, and hence, is something that merits attention. The notion of people as property makes manifest Nora’s notion of lieux de mémoires, disparate sites where “memory crystallizes and secretes itself.” While Nora envisions such sites as places, concepts, or objects that symbolize the memorial heritage of a community, in the case of slavery the bodies of enslaved black women, children and men were and are themselves sites of memory. The bodies of the dead are, however, enshrouded by a historic past that obscures the memorial past inscribed upon their very remains.