Catch Up and Challenging Questions

Commemoration_Ceremony

“I Have Known Rivers,” a ceremony at Brittlebank Park commemorating the Middle Passage and civil rights struggles of African descendants throughout the world, Charleston, SC, March 31, 2013.

So . . . the entire month of March went by without a blog post! My apologies! Personally and professionally it was one of the more hectic months of my academic career, but the good news is it was also productive in various ways. One major task was helping to implement the annual African Literature Association meeting in Charleston, which included a ceremony at Brittlebank Park to commemorate the Middle Passage and civil rights struggles of African descendants throughout the world. This ceremony included powerful musical performances from Ann Caldwell and the Magnolia Singers  and poetry readings by various scholars and literary figures. The poetry readings were in various different languages, reflecting the multinational impact of African slavery in the Atlantic World.

The international nature of this ceremony seemed to parallel the section of the APLA exhibition I was also frantically editing throughout the month of March. The title of this section is “Atlantic World Context,” and the goal is to provide a broad overview of how slavery and plantation agriculture developed in Charleston through a multinational trans-Atlantic system. Broad is the keyword, and challenge, here. After getting edits back from various scholars on my exhibition draft, I felt like I slipped down a rabbit hole. Trying to succinctly explain how the trans-Atlantic slave trade and New World chattel slavery developed over centuries between the Atlantic World regions of west and central Africa, Western Europe, and the Americas is not an easy task. Each historic step involves addressing a series of complicated questions– why did Europeans colonize the Americas? Why did Europeans predominantly enslave Africans instead of other Europeans? Why did Africans participate in trading enslaved Africans into trans-Atlantic slavery? Why/how did chattel slavery become a race-based labor system? The list goes on . . . My historian friends seemed surprised I was even attempting it.

The diverse voices and languages used within the “I Have Known Rivers” commemorative ceremony helped remind me why a cohesive international narrative of trans-Atlantic slavery for a public history exhibition is challenging, but worth attempting. The race and class legacies of slavery are an ongoing and shared international struggle throughout the Atlantic World today. The complexity of this history should not be oversimplified, but we must also remember that these past and present struggles are not isolated, but rather profoundly and internationally interconnected.

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