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Slavery Remembrance Day reminds us falling statues are just the start

"Those of us who are descendants from people who were enslaved, it isn't something we can forget."

Ngaio Anyia with the statue of a slave owner who weaved his name into the fabric of her home. 

Things changed for Ngaio Anyia the day she learned the truth about her school. It was named after a wealthy man who used his money to fund schools, churches and charity works in the city of Bristol, England. And that money came from slavery.

"Everything took a darker turn," Anyia remembers of her teenage years when she'd see streets and buildings named after slave owners. Even now, a decade later, statues and buildings and institutions of so many towns and cities around the world still cast the shadow of slavery.

Sunday, Aug. 23, is International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, marking the 1791 uprising in Haiti that played a vital role in the eventual abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. This year's commemoration is particularly charged amid a global climate of anger, pain and desire for change from both Black and white communities.

The coronavirus pandemic means that Slavery Remembrance Day events take place online this year, including those organized by the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England. Like Bristol, Liverpool was a fulcrum for the slave trade and associated business, such as the building and financing of slave ships, the import of cotton and sugar, and the export of guns and chains. 

But for Jean-François Manicom, the Slavery Museum's curator of transatlantic slavery and legacies, this is far from ancient history. "In the head of many people [a museum contains] things that happened in the old days," he tells me over the phone from Liverpool. "People think slavery is a sad old story that finished with abolition."

But the story continued long after Britain and America and other colonial powers supposedly ended the trade in human misery. Slavery fed the violent and virulent racism of the 20th century that endures today

"Those of us who are descendants from people who were enslaved, it isn't something we can forget," says Zita Holbourne, a trade union and human rights campaigner giving an online keynote speech Aug. 22 for the Slavery Museum. "We're living with the legacies of enslavement and colonialism every day in Britain and the USA, the Caribbean and Africa, across the Commonwealth countries and across Asia. We face everyday racism or systemic institutional racism, or we still have to be guarded when we go out on the street just going about our everyday business."

In London, police stopped and searched 22,000 young Black men during the coronavirus lockdown. The hostile environment for refugees and immigrants continues. In the US, the names George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many more echo across protests.

A wave of protest swept the US and the world following the death of George Floyd, killed by police in May 2020.

Ira L. Black/Corbis/Getty Images

Stephen Small, a professor at UC Berkeley, is also delivering a keynote lecture Aug. 23. He grew up in Liverpool. "As a kid, teen and young man," he remembers, "I was surrounded by hostile, aggressive and violent white boys -- mainly boys -- calling racist names as I went to school or the city center on the bus. All that everyday racism ... a constant barrage of verbal abuse." He went on to study at Bristol University in 1980, connecting Bristol's tobacco warehouses and factories with the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery not far from his school in Liverpool. "By now I was putting two and two together," he says.

Anyia came to the same realization as a teenager when she learned her school was named for Edward Colston, a name now synonymous with monuments celebrating slave owners. Their profit from enslavement allowed them to weave their names into the fabric of our society. 

"Realistically, the whole of the UK could walk around and be reminded of slavery -- it just depends whether you've been taught about it or not," says Anyia, a musician and inclusion consultant who recently presented BBC documentary Monumental to fill in what was missing from her history classes. "We need Black history to be interlinked with what we get taught today, and not just taught from the victor's point of view," she says. "How was this country built? Who had to sacrifice in order for us to live the way we do? In order for everyone to move on and be proud of where we come from, we have to acknowledge where we come from, how we built this life we have."

Monumental moments


A statue of slave owner Edward Colston is fished from the waters of Bristol.

Andrew Lloyd/Getty Images

Up until the 1950s, Black children in New Orleans were made to decorate a monument of a slave owner with flowers every year. For years, the Black community campaigned to have this statue and others like it removed. 

"Those statues are a slap in the face," says Holbourne, who believes the removal of such monuments is long overdue. "It's painful to see those people elevated and celebrated in our towns and cities. These people stripped our identities, tortured us, murdered us, raped our ancestors -- and yet they're on a pedestal."

In June 2020, a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol was pulled from its plinth and drowned beneath the waters that once bore slave ships. Days later protesters tore down the New Orleans statue and tossed it in the Mississippi River.

It isn't just street names bearing a reminder of slavery. Many Black people had surnames forced on them by slave owners, names passed down today. In a searing essay in The New York Times, Nashville poet Caroline Randall Williams describes the pain of knowing what her white ancestors did to her Black forebears. "I have rape-colored skin," she writes. "If they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument." 

Past, present and profit

The connection between past and present may be obvious in the Deep South or in the port towns of England, but the profits from slavery are insidiously embedded in society across the developed world. Governments, businesses and ordinary people engaged with and profited from slavery, directly or indirectly, before and after abolition. Banks, insurance companies and wealthy dynasties were founded or furthered by profit or compensation from the slave trade. 

The industrial and economic revolutions that laid the foundations for the modern Western world were built on the products of slavery, like cotton, tobacco, rum, sugar and coffee. Ropes and chains and shackles were made in Britain and exported to imprison slaves in America and the Caribbean and Africa -- low-paid workers exploited in Britain were made complicit in the act of enslaving and exploiting people elsewhere.

Raise Up, a sculpture by Hank Willis Thomas in Montgomery, Alabama, commemorating the 4,084 African Americans who were victims of lynching between 1877 and 1950.

Barry Lewis/Getty Images

The ending of the trade in enslavement didn't free Black people. Many continued to toil on the same plantations, farms and factories as before. In the longer term, the powerful Oscar-winning documentary 13th links the shackles of slavery with the handcuffs of mass incarceration. "Abolition changed one system of political domination and economic exploitation for another," explains Small. "No apology, no financial compensation, no opportunities for equality, just continued institutional racism and institutional subordination with the enthusiastic endorsement of the British government. And the master-enslavers? They got 20 million pounds."

Small is careful to draw distinctions, however. "Not all whites benefitted in the same ways," he notes. "Not all whites exploited in the same ways, and of course we know significant numbers of whites opposed slavery."

Small remembers being told the abolition of slavery was the best thing Britain ever did. "It was pounded into my head from childhood," he says of the lessons taught at school, on TV, in films like Zulu and in the speeches of politicians obsessed with empire. "Many young kids and older people don't know any better than to praise British abolition and praise the British empire. They are brainwashed in school and media. They -- and we -- are all victims of sustained institutional disinformation." He describes the myth of abolition as "an obsession, a deception and a delusion."

"You hear very little about people who were enslaved," says Holbourne, "the sacrifices they made and the danger they put themselves in and the lives lost to protest and campaign and resist and rebel against slavery."

1872 lithograph of the first Black representatives in the US Congress

An 1872 lithograph of the first Black representatives in the US Congress. Standing left to right: Robert C. De Large of South Carolina and Jefferson H. Long of Georgia. Seated, left to right: Sen. H.R. Revels of Mississippi; Benj. S. Turner of Alabama; Josiah T. Walls of Florida; and Joseph H. Rainy and R. Brown Elliot, both of South Carolina. 

Bettman/Getty Images

You may know know names like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington and Harriet Tubman. Some have even been honored with statues. But there are many more names and stories to be remembered: Francisco Menéndez, who escaped enslavement in British South Carolina and in 1738 took charge of Fort Mose, the first all-Black community in North America. Horace King, who became a notable architect and bridge builder while still enslaved, before buying his freedom and later becoming a state legislator. Joseph Rainey, Josiah Walls and Robert Smalls, not only enslaved but also forced to serve Confederate forces -- until they escaped and went on to be US congressmen. Dred Scott, who challenged slavery in court. Harriet and John Jacobs, Lunsford Lane and Austin Steward, Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho, who wrote about the horrifying experience of slavery.

So many people know their roots were twisted by slavery. Angela Bassett, Morgan Freeman, Michelle Obama, Chris Rock, Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey are just some of those whose forebears were enslaved. Singing star John Legend's ancestor bought his freedom only for his children to be kidnapped and dragged back into bondage. Film director Spike Lee's ancestor was forced to work in a factory making pistols for the Confederate army.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was one of many who revealed her family history in TV shows like Finding Your Roots. "We have trouble talking about the scars," she said. "That's the unspoken and unfinished business of race in America."

The way forward

Holbourne and Small both stress that the Black community must be consulted about what happens next. "The best way of achieving real change," says Small, "is to listen to and interact with Black organizations. They have been working on all these issues for decades and longer, they have the perspectives, the insights and the experience. They have the answers. Just talk to them -- but only if something substantive is done."

Action might include reparations, as convincingly argued for by author Ta-Nehisi Coates in his game-changing 2014 essay The Case for Reparations. Several potential Democratic candidates in the run-up to this year's presidential election discussed the possibility of financial reparations to close the wealth gap between Black and white households, such as investment in Black areas. This summer, the California Assembly voted to establish a task force studying ways to provide reparations to African Americans.

But Zita Holbourne and Jean-François Manicom insist money is far from the main motivation. "It's about healing," says Holbourne. "It's about equality. It's about being able to go out on the street and not have to worry about what might happen to you."

For Manicom, the conversation is difficult but essential. "Reparations can be moral," he says. "It can be improvement of trust between communities -- and this has no price."

Anyia agrees. "What's most important is for everyone to be working together," she says. "We need white people to take it on because historically they've taken it on less than Black people. But this movement has moved stronger when Black people and allies work together to push this conversation."

Further reading

Books and authors suggested by Stephen Small:

  • Walter Rodney How Europe Underdeveloped Africa
  • Orlando Patterson The Sociology of Slavery
  • Eric Williams Capitalism and Slavery
  • Angela Davis Women, Race, Class
  • Franz Fanon The Wretched of the Earth
  • Aimé Cesaire Discourse on Colonialism
  • Hakim Adi Pan-Africanism: A History
  • Ray Costello Black Liverpool
  • David Olusuga Black and British: A Forgotten History
  • Marika Sherwood After Abolition: Britain and the Slave Trade Since 1807