The homage to the victims of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery focuses on the cultural, political, economic and social activities that Africans undertook in the midst of slavery to redefine themselves and their world. It is the story of the ways in which enslaved Africans created their own history and culture and reshaped their destiny.
|Cane Cutters in Jamaica, 1880 @Schomburg Research Center|
Of the millions of people who crossed the Atlantic and settled in the Americas during the colonial period (1492-1776), over 80% were African. The slave trade and slavery were among the most powerful forces shaping the development of Europe and America. However, the vast majority of people know very little about the nature and character of these institutions and, until recently, the international community has deliberately avoided their study.
The descendants of slave traders and slave owners have shied away from earnest attempts to uncover the reality of slavery out of fear of being implicated in its horrors and obliged to shoulder the burden of guilt. The descendants of enslaved Africans avoid such study because they are afraid of being further demeaned or embarrassed by the findings.
Much of this fear and avoidance stems from the images of slavery and the slave trade that most people have come to believe are the essence of these institutions. What people know, or think they know, about slavery and the slave trade has been shaped by paradigms that have been handed down to us over the past 500 years. They are images of helpless, defenceless victims of unthinkable cruelty.
They are images of bound captives being driven by armed captors from the interior of West and Central Africa to coastal holding pens. They are images of men, women, and children in shackles and leg irons on board overcrowded slave ships. They are images of brutalized, exploited slaves working under unbearable conditions on plantations throughout the Americas. They are images of downtrodden degraded people – perennial victims – who were stripped of their culture and humanity and forced to live out their lives in slavery as pawns in vicious, all powerful systems of human degradation.
However, it is often forgotten that it was in the context of slavery that African peoples in the Americas invented and reproduced themselves and laid the foundations of their social, political, cultural, and economic development. Though victimized, exploited, and oppressed, enslaved Africans and their progeny—both slave and free—were active, creative agents in the making of their own history, culture and political future.
In place of the diverse languages that the enslaved Africans brought with them, they invented new languages to communicate with each other. They created new religions, dances, cuisines and art forms. Furthermore, the enslaved Africans brought with them and developed knowledge and technology of their cultures, most notably in medicine, botany, agriculture, navigation and iron making.
It was in the context of slavery that African Americans formulated rules of ethical and moral behaviour and fostered cooperation and mutual assistance among themselves. The new cultures they invented fostered self-esteem, courage and confidence in individuals and the group, making them better able to affirm their own identities and resist the power and control of their white masters.
Studying the lives of enslaved Africans in the Americas teaches us much about the capacity of human beings to develop even under dehumanizing conditions. It teaches us some of the diverse ways in which human beings confront and transcend oppression. It teaches us about living, surviving and winning in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.