Welcome to the United Nations. It's your world.

United Nations Remember Slavery Programme and Partners Recognize People of African Descent at events in Washington, D.C.

The legacy and contributions of people of African descent were recognized at two events organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information and partners in the Washington, D.C. area, in October 2017.

A moderated discussion titled, “The Legacy and Contributions of People of African Descent” was held on Tuesday, 17 October at the Jack Morton Auditorium at The George Washington University campus in partnership with The George Washington University (GWU), Howard University, Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and Afrodiaspora Inc. In his opening remarks, Dr. Ben Vinson III, Dean of Columbian College of Arts & Sciences of The George Washington University (GWU), said that he was excited and honoured that GWU was hosting the first collaborative event for educators and students on this subject matter in the Washington, D.C. area. He also moderated the panel which included Dr. Sheila Walker, cultural anthropologist and filmmaker; Dr. Mohamed Camara, Professor and Chair of African Studies Department of Howard University; Omyma David, Focal Point of the United Nations Remember Slavery Programme; and Sylvia Cyrus, Executive Director of Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

Prior to the moderated discussion, the audience viewed a seven-minute trailer of Dr. Sheila Walker’s newly released documentary film, Familiar Faces/Unexpected Places: A Global African Diaspora. In her discussion of the film, Dr. Walker explained that “given the African demographic basis of the Americas - of six and half million people who came to the Americas from Europe and Africa during the period 1500-1800, one million came from Europe and five and a half million came from Africa – thus making the argument that the overwhelming population that created the foundations of the modern Americas was African and African descendant. She therefore believes that it is impossible to tell the history of the Americas without including the roles of this majority. Dr. Walker also noted that the enslavement of Africans to build the Americas involved a transfer of technology from Africa to the Americas and some Africans were enslaved specifically for their knowledge and skills in metallurgy and agriculture.

In his presentation, Dr. Camara posited that, “one of the most far-reaching contributions of people of African descent to world civilization in modern times has been the unwavering fight for freedom, dignity and social justice, not only for themselves but also for all oppressed people around the world”. He also believes that African humanism and African spiritualism have sustained the identity, ethical values and civilizational worldview of people of African descent.In the current age of globalization, where transnational interdependence and cultural introversion evolve side by side, people of African descent must decisively promote global Africa and advance transcontinental unity and collective self-awareness.

Ms. David and Ms. Cyrus informed the audience of how institutions such as the United Nations and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History are helping to raise awareness of the legacy and contributions of people of African descent. In her presentation, Ms. David explained that the theme “Remember Slavery: Recognizing the Legacy and Contributions of People of African Descent” was chosen to guide the 2017 activities and products of the United Nations Remember Slavery Programme. Activities have included exhibits, film screenings, NGO briefings, Global Student Videoconferences, an annual General Assembly Commemorative Meeting, a cultural and culinary event and activities at the United Nations Information Centres around the world. Ms. David also noted that it was important to raise awareness of the legacy and contributions of people of African descent because “it helps to empower people of African descent and change some of the flawed perspectives and misinformation that exists about them”.

As Ms. Cyrus explained, “the Association for the Study of African American (originally Negro) Life and History is the world’s oldest Black intellectual organization”. It was created in 1915 by African American Historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson to promote, research, preserve, interpret and disseminate information about Black life, history and culture to the global community. The annual Black History Month, observed in the United States during the month of February, was an initiative of the organization, hence each year the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) determines the national theme for the commemoration. In addition, the organization’s primary publications—the Journal of African American History and the Black History Bulletin—are designed to help educators preserve the legacy and highlight the contributions of people of African descent. Ms. Cyrus also strongly encouraged educators to continue to find creative ways throughout the year to raise awareness of the legacy and contributions of people of African descent despite crowded school curricula.

On the following day, Wednesday, 18 October, the premiere screening of the documentary film, Familiar Faces/Unexpected Places: A Global African Diaspora, followed by a moderated discussion, was held at the Hall of the Americas at OAS Main Building in partnership with the Office of the Assistant Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) and Afrodiaspora, Inc. The discussion was moderated by Mr. Mauricio Rands, Secretary for Access to Rights and Equity of the Organization of American States and the panellists were Dr. Walker, and Ms. David along with Dr. Ariana A. Curtis, Museum Curator of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)/Smithsonian Institution and Dr. Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian, Director of the Department of Social Inclusion in the Secretariat for Access to Rights and Equity of the Organization of American States.

In his opening remarks, Organization of American States Assistant Secretary General Nestor Mendez commended the documentary for showcasing “the resolute spirit of the African Diaspora to thrive regardless of the circumstances”. He assured the audience that the OAS was doing its part to celebrate the African diasporic experience in the Americas, where people of African descent number an estimated 200 million. “Afro-descendants are in every single country of our hemisphere and have impacted our societies in innumerable ways. They play an instrumental role in shaping the social, economic, political and cultural spheres of our societies”.

Introducing her documentary, Dr. Walker noted its significance in giving visibility and recognition to countless Afro-communities found in unexpected parts of the world. During the after-screening discussion, she further explained that African descendant communities exist not only in all of the nations of the Americas, but also, among other places such as Melanesia, Turkey, on Indian Ocean islands and in several states in India. Dr. Walker also reported that throughout her many travels she has observed, that “African descendants maintained elements of ancestral cultures in the Diaspora, especially in the realm of spirituality, and commonalities are found across distant geographies”.

In her presentation, Dr. Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian underscored the work of OAS in helping move the agenda of human rights and social inclusion of People of African Descent. She cited the organization’s landmark Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Forms of Intolerance that specifically addresses the protection of the rights of Afro-descendants, among other groups historically discriminated against. The body has also agreed to a Regional Plan of Action to implement the Decade’s priorities in their region. In addition, the OAS Secretary General has requested that the rights of persons of African descent be included in OAS meetings, policies, programmes and projects. Dr. Muñoz-Pogossian believes that racism should be prevented on the individual level and national level. On the individual level, she encourages a movement away from the “culture of privilege” towards a “culture of equality”. At the national level, she called for more legislation and policies to criminalize racist behavior and affirmative action practices in education and employment.

Dr. Curtis of NHAAHC posited that the newly-built institution is the only national museum in the United States devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture. She explained that “the museum understands African Americanness as a global created identity that is not bound by United States borders but shares African heritage, cultural continuities and cultural expressions with other African descendant peoples around the world”. Dr. Curtis also expressed her appreciation for the way in which people of African descent were presented in Dr. Walker’s multi-continent documentary. She believes that in addition to the cultural continuities “it is so important to just see Black people as modern living beings in these spaces around the globe. And that we see ourselves as creators, as artisans, as architects, as producers of culture. Our visibility is critical!”

Overall, both events helped to raise awareness of the cultural, social and economic contributions of people of African descent to the development of societies around the world; underscored the significance in giving visibility and recognition to the countless Afro-communities found in unexpected parts of the world; and informed the audience of how organizations such as the United Nations, Organization of American States, National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History are helping to advance the agenda of the International Decade of People of African Descent (2015-2024). An exhibit produced by the Department’s Education Outreach Section titled Remember Slavery: Recognition, Justice and Development to mark the Programme’s tenth anniversary and highlight the objectives of the Decade was displayed at both events.

Exhibit -Remember Slavery: Recognition, Justice and Development, Photo: DPI

 Exhibit "Remember Slavery: Recognition, Justice and Development", Photo: DPI

George Washington University event, Photo: DPI

 George Washington University event, Photo: DPI

Exhibit -Remember Slavery: Recognition, Justice and Development, Photo: DPI

 Exhibit "Remember Slavery: Recognition, Justice and Development", Photo: DPI

George Washington University event, Photo: DPI

 George Washington University event, Photo: DPI

George Washington University event, Photo: DPI

 George Washington University event, Photo: DPI
 

Assistant Secretary General Nestor Mendez makes opening remarks at OAS event, Photo: OAS

 Assistant Secretary General Nestor Mendez makes opening remarks at OAS event,
 Photo: OAS

Panel at OAS event, Photo: OAS

 Panel at OAS event, Photo: OAS

Audience at OAS event, Photo: OAS

 Audience at OAS event, Photo: OAS

UN Web Services Section, Department of Public Information, © United Nations