With a resolution passed in 2007, the United Nations established March 25th—coinciding with the anniversary of the passage of the parliamentary act that banned the slave trade throughout the British Empire—as an international, annual observance specifically to reflect on the four hundred years of horror that was the transatlantic slave trade. That resolution also authorized a permanent memorial to be constructed at the UN Headquarters in New York City and established outreach programs that work with schools and communities to teach ‘future generations the “causes, consequences and lessons of the transatlantic slave trade, and to communicate the dangers of racism and prejudice.”’
In the spirit of the United Nations’ stated goal of raising and maintaining awareness around this part of our history and its continuing impact, I want to take today to highlight some resources (linked throughout) that I think are useful (to white folks, in particular) in such an examination. This is a difficult topic—one that tends to get emotions running pretty high—, so, before I continue, I would like to clarify a few points.
The transatlantic slave trade was brutal, inhumane, and a really profitable business. A lot of white folks made a lot of money thanks, directly and indirectly, to the trafficking of people as forced labor and chattel. In fact, it was so profitable that the British government paid reparations to slave owners—not the people who had been enslaved—when it abolished slave ownership. In fact, a number of families (not to mention corporations and entire nations) are still benefiting from the wealth their ancestors generated during the course of that cruel trade. Seriously—check out the database that is a part of University College of London’s Legacies of British Slave Ownership Project. I searched my family name on the database and found one hundred and twelve records. One hundred and twelve! My family name is rather common, but chances are that I’m distantly related to at least one of those one hundred and twelve people. The British weren’t the only ones who relied on compensated emancipation or post-abolition reparations. In fact, most of the colonial powers (Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands), a number of post-colonial countries (like the United States), and smaller colonizing governments compensated slaveholders when slavery was abolished. (And since we’re here: no, the Irish were not slaves, too.)
These are facts. I don’t point to them in an attempt to make anyone feel responsible or guilty (guilt is super counterproductive, y’all.) I am no more responsible for my ancestors’ cruelty than gay people are for natural disasters. But! I am responsible for acknowledging how the actions of my ancestors have benefited me and disadvantaged Black folks. That is not to say that white folks don’t have problems. I have a laundry list of forces that are working against me, but none of them have anything to do with my race. And grappling with our various privileges is hard, often uncomfortable work, and it’s never something you complete; it’s something that you just keep working at…and then you work at it some more. It’s a process of constant learning, improving, relearning, adjusting. It requires us to be open to hearing uncomfortable truths. But it is necessary if you really and truly believe that “all [people] are created equal.”
This is not just about confronting our history, and I am definitely approaching this from the standpoint of U.S. history. If it were only about our history, I don’t imagine that so many people with a similar level of melanin as I have would be so resistant to examining it. A really honest discussion of the transatlantic slave trade necessarily entails acknowledging that slavery did not end all that long ago and, further, looking at its lasting impact. The insidious triangle that saw human lives valued as commodities up against the going rates for sugar and molasses—of manufactured goods, of cotton—was an established institution; recognized and upheld by any number of governments, for longer than the United States has been a nation. In fact, chattel slavery in the United States lasted longer than the United States is old—by five years.
It is vital that we take every opportunity to look at our history honestly and examine how it impacts society today. However uncomfortable those truths may make some (mostly white) folks, it is necessary that we engage with history in a way that does not continue to oppress, demean, and erase the experiences of people who are descended from men, women, and children who were brought here against their will, forced into labor, brutalized, and treated as property for nearly two hundred and fifty years. It is because we have shied away from engaging with those truths for so long that we have public officials—inadvertently, or otherwise—conflating forcibly enslaved people with immigrants, history textbooks claiming that enslaved people were simply plantation workers, and a society in which slavery is still very real and disproportionately impacts Black communities in the United States. That “Black Lives Matter” has to be said at all – let alone its being a contentious statement – is, in no small part, because we have refused to look at our ugly and unadorned history with eyes that are not desperately searching for something to make it more palatable.
So, on this day, as we remember the victims of the transatlantic slave trade, let’s commit ourselves to engaging with the truths—however ugly—about our society and our history. This is hard work. It is uncomfortable work. But it is good work. It is just work. It is necessary work. And the fruits of that labor will benefit everyone.