March 25, 2015
Today should be a solemn day here in New Haven, across the country, and around the world. It is the seventh anniversary of what the United Nations calls the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Launched by the U.N. in 2008, it is a commemoration that calls on the international community to remember and honor the African men, women, and children who suffered through the horrors of enslavement and the Transatlantic trafficking of human beings. It also presents an opportunity to deepen public understanding of the brutalities of enslavement and its continuing effects on black people throughout the world today.
As part of this year’s commemoration, a permanent memorial to the victims of enslavement will be unveiled at United Nations headquarters in New York. The memorial, entitled The Ark of Return, has been installed on the Visitors Plaza to help the world “acknowledge the tragedy, consider the legacy of slavery and never forget those who endured its horrors.” This year’s observance, which is focused on the special horrors faced by women who were enslaved, comes against the backdrop of the U.N. General Assembly’s proclamation of the years 2015 through 2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent.
The United Nations has done the world a great service. With these initiatives, it is inviting us all to look with fresh eyes at what it calls “the largest forced migration in history, and undeniably one of the most inhumane.” It is urging the world to recognize that the descendants of the victims of enslavement, people of African ancestry all over the world, are today among the “poorest and most marginalized groups” who “have limited access to quality education, health services, housing and social security, … and all too often experience discrimination in their access to justice, and face alarmingly high rates of police violence, together with racial profiling.”
These commemorations are intended to coax the world out of denial and invite us to come to terms with the fact that the oppression of black people has, in fundamental ways, been unbroken. The observances encourage us to seek to understand the contemporary challenges facing black people in the light of events that occurred centuries ago, but are still reverberating today.
The U.N’s call to action is “Remember Slavery.” But, as we remember, we would do well to focus on the fact that the people we are called to honor today were not “slaves.” The use of the term “slave” turned human beings into objects, commodifying African people by branding them as inferior and sub-human. The use of the term “slave” also deflects attention from the fact that there were people doing the “enslaving,” people committing crimes against the humanity of other people. To properly honor the men, women, and children who were victimized by enslavers, we should stop calling them “slaves,” and, instead, call them “human beings who were enslaved.”
We would also do well to reconsider the use of the term “the Transatlantic Slave Trade.” It would be more aptly described as “Transatlantic Human Trafficking,” the mass transport of human beings by force and terror for purposes of economic, sexual, and other forms of exploitation.
Words matter. Those of us who are the descendants of the human beings who were enslaved owe it to them to use words in ways that illuminate, rather than obfuscate, the truth.
Our ancestors were living, breathing people, with hopes and dreams, who were robbed of their liberty and stripped of their human dignity to help build the extraordinarily prosperous economies of the United States and Europe. These men, women, and children lived their lives under the control of people who deigned to call themselves “masters.” They determined the course of black people’s sexual and reproductive lives, forcibly separated black men and women whenever it suited their interests, and seized at will the children to whom black women gave birth. Only with the permission of the masters, were black men and women allowed to form relationships. And their children were witness to what sociologist Orlando Patterson has described as the “daily degradation of their parents at the hands of the slaveholders.”
Yet, although victimized in the most brutal of ways, great numbers of these men and women, the ancestors of black people living all over the world today, were able to survive, to fight noble and grand struggles for freedom and civil and human rights, to establish families, and to “make a way out of no way” for their descendants–for us.
These are the precious human beings we are called to remember and honor today. I remember them. I honor them. And I thank them. May they rest in peace.
Enola G. Aird is the founder and president of Community Healing Network, Inc., which is leading the global grassroots movement for emotional emancipation to overcome and overturn the lie of Black inferiority: the root cause of the devaluing of Black lives. www.CommunityHealingNet.org