Thursday, 23 August 2012

A TAOBQ Open Letter: Why I Say No To “Slavery Memorial Day”, “Slavery Remembrance Day” And Similar Terminology

A TAOBQ Open Letter: Why I Say No To “Slavery Memorial Day”, “Slavery Remembrance Day” And Similar Terminology

August 23 2012

By Kwaku
TAOBQ (The African Or Black Question) co-ordinator


Today and in the next few days, there will be a number of events across Britain marking “Slavery Remembrance Day”, “Slavery Memorial Day”, and another terminology I came across a few days ago, “Slave Remembrance Day”. I believe these terminologies to be misnomers, and do not do justice to the spirit of what they purport be commemorating. The preferred terminology ought to be the International Day of AfricanResistance Against Enslavement.

Hence this open letter, and for those that like their commucations in bite-size form, the conversations can continue on Twitter using hashtags  or .

The marking of August 23 is an initiative of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), which was adopted in 1997. If you have not heard of this national commemoration, it’s not surprising. Member states are merely “invited to give this international day all due prominence and to mobilise their educational, scientific, artistic and cultural communities, youth and, in general, civil society”.

Re-wind to 2007, which was the bicentennial of the 1807 Abolition Of The Slave Trade Act. This Act, championed in parliament by William Wilberforce, did not, and was not intended to end chattel enslavement. But many people were not to know that, as numerous publications and commentators, either directly or implicitly talked about the Act in terms of having abolished chattel enslavement.

During that period of self-congratulatory, back-patting commemorations of Britain having taken the moral high ground by abolishing the vile “trade”, which was the trafficking of African people, the Government initially wanted an annual commemoration of the trafficking and abolition to be on March 25 – the date the Act was passed 200 years ago.

Many grassroots organisations, conscious pundits, and indeed the then London Mayor Ken Livingstone, opposed this. They suggested that the August 23 date be adopted. It was not until the end of the bicentennial year, in December that the Government finally announced its adoption of August 23.

Whilst the Government used the UNESCO’s Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition terminology, some organisations, including trade unions and anti-racist organisations, decided to opt for “Slavery Remembrance Day” or “Slavery Memorial Day”.

But before then, among the first libraries and museums that took up the challenge of commemorating August 23 in Britain is the National Museums Liverpool (NML), which began its “Slavery Remembrance Day” events in 1999, the year the city of Liverpool “apologised” for its prominent role in the so-called “slave trade”.

NML, and now through its specialist wing, the International Slavery Musuem (ISM), which was inuagurated in 2007, has continued to regularly put on a range of August 23 activities. Whilst its programmes are perhaps one of the best on offer – reasons which will be explained later – the museum is one of the institutions that have popularised the “Slavery Remembrance Day” terminology in Britain.

NML states on its website that “the date has been designated by UNESCO as Slavery Remembrance Day, a reminder that enslaved Africans were the main agents of their own liberation.” The first part of the statement is erroneous.

This is how UNESCO described the initiative in 1998, when it first marked August 23: “By its decision to proclaim 23 August each year as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, UNESCO sought to pay tribute to the tireless struggle of the slaves for their freedom.”  And UNESCO has been consistent in using its official terminology ever since.

As embracing as the UNESCO terminology may seem, some pan-Africanists have an issue with the kind of focus the terminology so easily lends itself to. So at a meeting of the Recovered Histories London Regional Network in 2008, a new terminology was adopted: International Day of African Resistance Against Enslavement.

This terminology, which I implore all Africanists and true African supporters to use, underscores the significance of August 23 1791, which heralded the start of the Haitian Revolution - the first successful revolution by enslaved Africans in the so-called New World, and which partly led to the abolition of the trafficking of Africans.

The Haitian link puts the focus on the activism of Africans. The other terminologies so easily lend themselves to Wilberfest type programming, where the focus is often on European abolitionists like Wilberforce, the ‘magnanimity’ of the British for abolishing chattel enslavement, whilst the Africans are usually seen as poor, pathetic enslaved people, and their determination in fighting for their own freedom seldom highlighted.

Using the International Day of African Resistance Against Enslavement terminology does not necessarily mean locating every event around the narrow focus of Haiti, August 23 and African resistance. What it offers is a great opportunity to highlight and re-tell African histories of resilience and overcoming against great odds across the diaspora and over the ages.

This can help empower Africans, particularly young people who are disconnected with their African roots, whilst also highlighting some of the less well-known histories and counter-balancing some of the mis-information about chattel enslavement and its abolition.

Personally, I have been using the oportunity to deliver programmes that use the Haitian revolution as a springboard to highlight a range of global African histories with a connection to August, which incidentally has been re-named by a Garveyite organisation as Mosiah month in honour of the great pan-Africanist icon, Marcus Garvey.

Garvey, who is one of the NARM role models (African British male role models spanning 1907-2007), was born 125 years ago on 17th August and his UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) organisation offers a number of historical markers in August.

This year, the guest speaker at one of the NLM/ISM events is Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of African-American civil rights leader Dr King. In addition to delivering a memorial speech, he will also unveil a plaque on one of the museum’s buildings to be named after his father.  Another talks programme is ‘We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For’, where the topic for discussion is not just on historical and contemporary African heroes and heroines, but crucially, it welcomes the inclusion of community grass roots heroes.

Talking about grass roots heroes, there is no doubt that next year being the 50th anniversary of Dr King’s ‘I Have A Dream Speech’, there will be a surfeit of King/‘I Have A Dream Speech’ related events.

But how many of the historians, programmers and organisers of those type of events will look at highlighting some of the local heroes I highlight in the NARM book? For example, Paul Stephenson, the leader of the Bristol Bus Boycott, which officially ended on August 28 1963, the same day Dr King made his famous speech.

If we don’t know of Stephenson or the Bristol Bus Boycott, we should take the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with what ought to be an important part of African British history, instead of forever harking back to the United States, as if do not have  any African-driven civil rights activism in Britain.

Incidentally, if you decide to take the effort, please do not rely on the New York Times website, where there is a feature on the international influence of Dr King. It has an aside, which mentions Stephenson and the bus boycott. Sadly, in  spite of my pointing out an error to the editorial department and the author, who is an Oxford University history tutor, the esteemed newspaper’s website continues to declare “Mr. Stephenson’s bus boycott was actually a strike by drivers seeking better working conditions rather than a copy of Montgomery’s passenger boycott.”

Anyone who’s read anything about the Bristol Bus Boycott would know that it was a fight against the colour bar practised by the bus company and a trade union, which discriminated against non-Europeans by not allowing their employment as bus drivers or conductors.

Last year, I selected some NARM role models, like Asquith Xavier, CLR James, Dr Harold Moody, Henry Sylvester Williams, and Ladipo Solanke, to tell a range of AfricanBritish civil rights histories across London during African History Month (25 years after its introduction to Britain, it’s time to ditch the now meaningless Black History Month terminology).

Another NARM role model, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, is the subject of an August 23 event at London’s National Portrait Gallery, where his images are part of an on-going exhibition until March 2013. This is how the gallery’s website promotes the event highlighting the African British composer who died 100 years ago: “On Slavery Remembrance Day celebrate the remarkable life of a composer who rose from humble beginnings to international celebrity. With biographer Charles Elford.”

Upon first reading this blurb, I wondered about the relevance of linking this event to August 23. Coleridge-Taylor was born in London in 1875, well after the abolition of chattel enslavement. His father was a London-trained doctor who came from Sierra Leone’s middle class.

If this event was merely going to focus on the great achievements of one of Britain’s most famous composers of the early 1900s – his ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’ was a major hit, which had numerous performances at prestigious venues such as the Royal Albert Hall, and whose fame was such that he went on three tours of the US, where he became the first African to conduct an all European orchestra and was feted at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt – it could have been done any other day.

However, I know Elford is passionate about Coleridge-Taylor and as the author of the novelised biography ‘Black Mahler’, I expect he will also highlight Coleridge-Taylor’s activism as a pan-Africanist, the aplomb with which he dealt with racism, the challenges and the doors he opened as an African within the Western musical world and beyond in the late 19th/early 20th century. This is what would make August 23 relevant, as it highlights the spirit and connection to the global African histories of struggles and resistance.

Going back to the International Slavery Museum. I must confess I had never been keen on visiting it. Thankfully earlier this year, I took the opportunity offered by a guest speaker engagement at the Liverpool Institute For Performing Arts to pay a visit. The more I saw during my guided visit, the more I dropped off the baggage I had come in with.

My last Open Letter in 2009 was entitled ‘African (Black) History Month Aim Not Achieved/African History Is Wider Than Enslavement’. In it, I advocated that our history was much wider than just the enslavement period, which was what the Government had managed to get into the school’s history curriculum starting in 2008. It also advocated using the International Day of African Resistance Against Enslavement terminology, and that the August 23 date “must be used to focus on the resistance led by Africans.”

I had imagined that the ISM was simply a Wilberfest time capsule. Looking at the exhibits, reading the captions and engaging with the various audio-visual resources, I was amazed at the fair representation of the issues in terms of language and focus, and there was no over-emphasis of the European abolitionists.

Also, surprisingly, it was not as its name might have implied, focused on just enslavement, rebellions and the abolition – it actually covered a much wider area, and in language that showed respect and sensitivity. Issues that link to contemporary times, such as racism, colonialism, African nationalism, civil rights, reparations, and popular culture have some prominence. This includes a highly recommended video show that tells centuries of global African history within a few minutes.

I later discovered the museum’s stance is in part due to its having input from clued up people from Liverpool’s African community throughout the process, from its inception, to acquisitions, installations and its on-going programming.

My only issue, which I pointed out to staff was one caption which stated that in 1772, Lord Mansfield declared enslavement illegal. Lord Mansfield’s judgment in the Somersett case did not definitively pronounce on the legality or illegality of enslavement.

Which leads me to one last point. Among the museum’s facilities is the Campaign Zone, where organisations like Liverpool’s anti-human trafficking group Stop The Traffik (STT) use for meetings. The STT cause is of course laudable, and deserves all the support and publicity it can get. However, my view is that modern day slavery and chattel enslavement must not be mentioned in the same breadth, as if the former is simply a continuation of the latter.

It is not. Whilst they both keep people in servitude, today’s slavery or human trafficking is illegal. The victims have human rights, and when the traffickers are caught, they do face the law. In the case of chattel enslavement, victims were deemed to be “property”, and had no rights whatsoever. This perverse notion meant that an enslaver could torture or kill an enslaved African, without facing criminal prosecution.

This is shown in the Zong massacre, which involved 132 Africans being thrown overboard during the Middle Passage on the orders of the ship’s captain, and the subsequent insurance claim for loss of property (chattel). Lord Chief Justice Mansfield in his 1783 summing up of the jury's verdict, echoed the prevalent view of the time, which was that what happened to those Africans was “the same as if horses had been thrown over board.” None of the Zong’s crew were charged for the killing of over 100 people!

This is why the kind of servitude I’ve just illustrated should be distinguished from other forms of servitude and be described as “chattel enslavement” – language is veryimportant in dealing with these matters.

In 1937, William Prescott, a former enslaved African in the United States said: “They will remember that we were sold. But they won’t remember that we were strong. They will remember that we were bought. But not that we were brave.” This is what terminologies like “Slavery Memorial Day” and “Slavery Rememberance Day” invariably leave us with.

No to “SlaveryMemorial Day and "Slavery Remembrance Day”, yes to International Day Of African Resistance Against Enslavement!

© 2012 Kwaku

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