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NGO Briefing

The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Socio-Economic Contributions of People of African Descent

30 March 2017 – Whereas the cultural impacts of people of African descent tend to be well recognized around the world, their contributions to the economic and social development of societies, from the time of the transatlantic slave trade to the present, should be better known. That was why the United Nations Department of Public Information hosted a briefing for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on 30 March 2017 titled "The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Socio-Economic Contributions of People of African Descent."

Organized by the Education Outreach Section’s Remember Slavery Programme in partnership with the NGO Relations, Advocacy & Special Events Section, the event was held in the Economic and Social Council Chamber at United Nations Headquarters in New York and was moderated by Professor Abena P. A. Busia of Rutgers University. The panelists included: Dr. Joseph E. Inikori, a professor and economic historian from the University of Rochester; Mr. Cy Richardson, Senior Vice President for Economics and Housing Programs at the National Urban League in New York; Professor Verene A. Shepherd of the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, in Jamaica; and Dr. Ben Vinson III, Dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences of The George Washington University in Washington, DC.

Dr. Vinson focused on the many historical contributions of people of African descent across the Spanish speaking Americas. Calling Latin America “a case of Black success,” he described the significant role that people of African descent played in the development of the colonial world, which later became the foundation of modern Latin American societies. One lesser known contribution that he highlighted was military service. He posited that the role that Black people played in conquering the New World gave rise to a legacy of military service that would endure throughout the colonial period. He said, “Prior to 1700, the bulk of the Spanish world's armed forces were staffed by men of colour, who used their special military relationship with the king to lobby for privileges that made their lives better, and that improved the fortunes of their families.”

In her presentation, Professor Shepherd chose to focus on the contemporary situation in the Caribbean. She provided clear examples of how survivors of the transatlantic slave trade in the Caribbean developed economic enterprises, contributed to the development of European countries, created wealth and increased regional commerce. However, the profits they generated from plantation production enriched European institutions while impoverishing the Caribbean. Highlighting social contributions in such areas as architecture, culture, language, fashion, cuisine, spirituality, philosophy, place names and folktales, she stressed that the most significant legacies were in the areas of resistance, the ideology of freedom and the constant search for respect, identity, justice, labour rights and gender equality.

Dr. Inikori presented on the economic contributions of people of African descent in Brazil and the United States. He made the argument that the employment of enslaved Africans in large-scale commodity production in the Americas from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries was central to the nineteenth century Atlantic economy and ultimately the global economy. He observed that, over the years, such knowledge has remained known only to a circle of historians. In that regard, he integrated data into his presentation to help make the convincing case that enslaved Africans and their descendants had paid a high cost for their contributions.

Mr. Richardson focused his presentation on the legacies of the United States’ civil rights movement and the continued struggle for equitable development. Richardson argued that “the ideals, practices and tactics of that movement constitute a massive contribution of people of African descent in the United States as well as a blueprint of sorts for the broader international civil and human rights ecosystem.” He posited that, in addition to promoting political and civic engagement, the civil rights movement and the fight for racial equality helped to accelerate the further development of other key values of democratic life, such as tolerance, moderation, compromise and respect for opposing points of view. He also noted that one of the major outcomes and consequences of the movement was the election of former United States President Barack Obama but cautioned that this did not mean that we were seeing a “post-racial America.” He acknowledged that the struggle endured, and as the movement evolved, the focus was now on economic inequality and narrowing the racial wealth gap.

Given the importance of youth in the conversation, one event participant, Ms. Ruth Brinkley, representing Hip Hop for DPI and New Future Foundation Inc., offered a youth perspective. She spoke of the contradiction between the many significant contributions made by people of African descent to the development of societies around the world and the myriad struggles they continued to experience. She felt that educational institutions should focus not only on the traumatic events of the transatlantic slave trade but also on the positive contributions and leadership of people of African descent.

Following the presentations, the moderator guided the audience and panelists through a rich question and answer segment, which was dominated by youth participation. The briefing was well received by the audience, which included NGO representatives, students, educators, United Nations staff, diplomats and members of the general public. Watch the archived webcast.

group photo
(From left to right) H.E. Mr. Courtenay Rattray, Permanent Representative of Jamaica to the UN; H.E. Mr. José Luis Fialho Rocha, Permanent Representative of Cabo Verde to the UN; Prof. Verene Shepherd, University of the West Indies; Ms. Omyma David, UN Department of Public Information; Ms. Ruth Brinkley, Hip Hop for DPI and New Future Foundation Inc.; H.E. Ms. A. Missouri Sherman-Peter, Permanent Observer of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) to the UN; Prof. Abena P. A. Busia, Rutgers University; Under-Secretary-General Cristina Gallach, UN Department of Public Information; Mr. Cy Richardson, National Urban League; Dr. Ben Vinson III, George Washington University; Dr. Joseph Inikori, University of Rochester

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