Today marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. This is a very important historical event, which is being commemorated all around the world. You may have noticed ceremonies going on in your community. There are bicentenary events going on from South Africa and New York to Bristol and India. Yesterday in the Eye of York hundreds of volunteers laid shoulder-to-shoulder, cheek-to-cheek, within the outline of a 150ft. ship, to try to get a feel for the miserable experience that several generations of enslaved Africans were forced to endure in the bowels of a slave ship. Here in Syracuse we have hosted community workshops, lectures, film screenings and discussions centered on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I would encourage us all as Blackademics to seek out events in our communities and honor the enslaved by raising awareness about this historic year. This is such an important date for us to remember and to interrogate. 1807 only marked the abolition of the English slave trade. Slavery continued in Britain for another three decades. Furthermore, Enslavement was still legal within the other European countries and colonies and continued in the United States until the ratification of the 13th amendment in December 1865. The last nation in the Americas to abolish slavery was Brazil, who did so in 1888. So while we commemorate this day, it is important to remember that Britain is not the center of the universe, and thus the 1807 abolition of the British slave trade, did not mean freedom or liberation for any of the Africans already in bondage.
Another important factor to explore is the “history” of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Mainstream historians explain abolition as a product of sympathetic white Christian activists, who were fighting to save Africans from their wretched existence as slaves. This white savior mentality is epitomized in the logo used by the British Anti-Slavery Society, showing a black man on his knees, begging for salvation. Many contemporary articles, newspapers, books and films such as the new Hollywood production; Amazing Grace perpetuate such distortions by championing William Wilburfor as the great savior that took it upon himself to single-handedly liberate the enslaved masses of downtrodden Africans. This distortion, which portrays Blacks as passive and incapable of participating in their own emancipation could not be further from the truth. Contrary to popular belief, it was the actions of Africans themselves, which led towards emancipation. Events like the Haitian Revolution and various slave rebellions throughout the Caribbean and the Americas, as well as the groundwork of such revolutionaries as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Toussaint Louverture were integral factors in the Black liberation struggle. Wilburfor was not even the primary English abolitionist; it was the grassroots efforts of Thomas Clarkson, who spearheaded the abolitionist movement in England. Understanding this history is important for us to understand our role in the 21st century struggle for freedom from new forms of slavery. For more information on the slave trade, check out the BBC.
I’m curious as to how many of you were aware of today’s significance? Why is it so important to be aware of this historical moment? Does slavery still exist in the 21st century? If so, how is it different from previous forms of chattel slavery?