One topic of discussion that sends many people diving for cover or clearing a room is the enslavement of Africans in the Americas.
There was no where to hide in 1976, when Alex Haley released his Pulitzer Prize-winning ancestral novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family and in 1977, when the Emmy Award-winning TV miniseries of the same name premiered to record-breaking ratings.
Every so often, the discussion manages to seep its way into the mainstream. This time, the topic even found its way onto the 2020 U.S. Presidential Campaign Trail, as liberal candidates are quickly realizing they will need to take a stand and defend their views on reparations for descendants of American chattel slavery ... if they expect to win the black vote.
At the United Nations yesterday, the discussion took the global stage at the Commemoration of the Abolition of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
“It was among history’s most appalling manifestations of human brutality,” said Secretary-General António Guterres during the opening remarks of the 72nd plenary meeting of the General Assembly.
“On this International Day of Remembrance, we pay homage to the millions of African men, women and children denied their humanity and forced to endure abominable cruelty across centuries,” Guterres said. “Enslaved peoples from Africa were irrevocably harmed and in many instances killed by an institution that should never have existed.”
These U.N. commemorations are annual occurrences. However, this year in the United States, many Americans are commemorating the 400th anniversary of the 20 enslaved Africans who arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. The year 1619, which some historians argue the arrival of Africans with Spanish explorers happened a century earlier, marks the establishment of slavery in the United States.
Over the next 246 years in slave territories and states, African women and girls would be raped and impregnated with their children ripped from their wombs. Relatives would be sold and families would be separated, the latter a practice the United States still sanctions as Latin American asylum seekers cross the southern border today. And every able-bodied African man, woman and child would be exploited of their labor to harvest bounties and build infrastructure for what would become the world’s greatest superpower.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which abolished slavery in all 50 states. However, many social justice scholars argue that the notion of abolition was overstated, because of a constitutional loophole that continues to allow for slavery to penalize convicted criminals. In Michelle Alexander’s New York Times Best Seller, The New Jim Crow: Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she outlined how slavery never ended in America, it morphed into a system that keeps more black men under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850 and more than were imprisoned in the height of apartheid in South Africa.
Yesterday, Guterres cautioned world leaders against those ever-prevalent new forms of slavery. The secretary general also took a moment to acknowledge historical figures who sacrificed their lives for freedom.
“We need to tell the stories of those who stood up to their oppressors and recognize their righteous resistance,” said Guterres, as he invoked the names of four freedom fighters “and others.”
Two of those names were 17th Century royal rebels—an Afro Brazilian warrior King Zumbi dos Palmares and Angolan diplomat Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba—who fought against Portuguese colonial powers. A third name was Queen Nanny of the Maroons, an 18th Century chieftainess who escaped slavery in Jamaica, fended off British forces and formed a settlement. The fourth name was the fugitive-slave-turned-liberator Harriet Tubman, who became the conductor of the Underground Railroad—a secret network of abolitionists who harbored hundreds of enslaved Africans as they escaped North to freedom in the United States.
One notable “other” unmentioned was the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, who led the most successful insurrection in the Americas, defeated Napoléon Bonaparte, ended slavery on the island nation and established the world’s first black republic.
Guterres ended his remarks by challenging the international leaders “to fight racism, combat xenophobia, tackle discrimination and end social and political marginalization to uphold human dignity for one and all.”