So, yesterday was the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition (23rd August). A week ago I attended the Slavery Remembrance Memorial in Trafalgar Square and I took some pictures but I also thought about a lot of things, and I think it is best that I accompany these photos with something that my camera cannot purvey. Interspersed with these photos of beautiful people are some of my thoughts on the remembrance of slavery.
First of all, slavery is not in the past. Modern slavery is alive and flourishing, and that means that the human race has learned nothing from the African Slave Trade. Profit still trumps the value of human life. Furthermore, the black body is still routinely and systematically abused and dehumanised by people with non-black bodies. Therefore, the remembrance of the roughly 13 million people who were enslaved by Europeans between the sixteenth and nineteenth century, is, more than ever, essential. Notice that I did not use the word 'slave' in that sentence. I learnt from my Caribbean History tutor that 'slave' robs those who were enslaved of their humanity and diversity. The enslaved included children and mothers, as well as doctors and farmers. They were enslaved people, not simply slaves. Even those who were born enslaved in the Caribbean were, first and foremost, people. I think this is an infinitely useful skill to master - to be able to humanise when we generalise. This is how we sift out unexamined prejudices from our thinking, and learn to accurately identify the 'other', when we make claims about them.
Remembering the enslavement of Africans prevents us from becoming complacent. Because we force ourselves to recognise awful truths about the past, we allow ourselves to improve the future. As adults with unlimited access to information, we must face the atrocities committed by our own ancestors, and we must empathise with and listen to those who continue to feel the pain of that history in the present day. Every black person you meet in Britain has African and/or Caribbean ancestry influenced in some way by the slave trade. Not all black people's ancestors were enslaved, of course, but all black people have felt grief, anger and sorrow upon learning about the historical, scientific, political and psychological dehumanisation of black people. Reading about slavery in the Caribbean really hurts. It makes me want to cry sometimes and other times it makes me furious. This history is a psychological burden, if you are black. Racism is a psychological trauma, if you are black. But the reason why I read on and uncover more disgusting truths about the extent of antiblackness, is because the knowledge which sometimes makes me want to weep can be a source of empowerment. Knowledge is power. Learning from history, you learn what not to do. You realise the flaws in the reasoning of the oppressor, and you liberate yourself from their mindset.
This liberation is what I witnessed last Saturday, huddled in Trafalgar Square, standing below pro-slavery Nelson on his righteous column, amongst black people wearing their natural hair, African prints and bright colours with pride. Black pride is found in the recognition of one's own beauty and worth, and the knowledge that your ancestors survived despite all odds so that you might one day live. I recently watched a video on Facebook where a black American woman claimed that black pride and white supremacy were equally destructive, and I realised how pervasive her ignorance was. If you deny the oppressed's freedom to celebrate themselves, take pride in themselves, then how could you be any better than a white slaveowner on a Jamaican plantation splitting up your blacks so that they cannot understand each other's diverse languages, and writing down in law that they cannot practise their religious beliefs. Standing among proud people, I felt good. I felt jarred by the brilliant architecture around us, knowing that it was most likely built using the payments which were never intended to be issued to enslaved blacks in the colonies. But knowing that everyone around me knew the same feeling, I was at ease.
The speakers and performers touched on issues of reparations, recognising the culture of the Francophone Caribbean, securing justice for the dead and living victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, encouraging black people to register as bone marrow donors (if you are white, you have a 90% chance of surviving leukemia whereas if you are black you have a pitiful 20% chance, due to the lack of black donors: click here to register if you are interested), recognising the instrumental role of the Church in maintaining and perpetuating the oppression of black people in the Caribbean, and the new Black Studies degree starting at Birmingham City University. It felt so wonderful to hear other people voice my own thoughts, as well as open me up to new ones. This week I heard about BBC Pidgin and I'm not Nigerian and I can barely speak my mum's native Sierra Leonean Krio, but I understand everything on that website and I am overjoyed (link here). On Sunday and on Monday I am going to Notting Hill Carnival and I am so blessed to be among black people and talk about wonderful and terrible things specific to blackness. This is community. This is what we take pride in. This is why we remember those who died for us to eventually exist in these communities. The sacrifices and sufferings of our ancestors are not small things to be forgotten.
We will not be forgetting the Jewish Holocaust any time soon. Nor the Rwandan, Bosnian or Armenian genocides. Why should the systematic destruction and torture of 13 million African people be any different? Because it was for money does not mean it was not a genocide. And why should the European enslavement of African and Creoles become some distant memory which Britain methodically refuses to fully accept its participation in? I personally will not allow this to happen, as long as I live. Just because something shames us does not mean we should not confront it. But I suppose this is the problem. The slave trade was so profitable that for Britain to fully acknowledge it would necessitate the centuries-late granting of reparations to the descendants of enslaved people. A late payment for all that free labour. The slaveowners were compensated for their loss of property after abolition while freed blacks just went from poverty to poverty in the Caribbean. No justice seen as of yet. I do not like these facts but I feel stronger knowing them. I am kinder to myself and to others because I know these terrible truths. This is how we move forward, this is how we progress. This is why the remembrance of slavery is so important.
Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoy the photographs.