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Global Student Videoconference brings together students from Africa and the Americas to discuss role of art in remembering slavery and promoting justice

“Remember Slavery: The Power of the Arts for Justice” was the theme of the eleventh annual United Nations Remember Slavery Global Student Videoconference, held on 10 May 2019 at United Nations Headquarters in New York. The event was organized by the United Nations Remember Slavery Programme, which is managed by the Department of Global Communications’ Education Outreach Section, in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Associated Schools Network, and Links, Inc., a youth branch affiliated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It brought together around 500 students from the New York metropolitan area, Kenya and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

Opening the Conference was H.E. Mr. Mauro Vieira, the Permanent Representative of Brazil to the United Nations, who spoke about Brazil’s history as an axis of the triangular slave trade. Approximately 6,000 enslaved Africans were brought to Brazil, and today, there are more than 100 million people of African descent living in Brazil.

“Culture was as important as politics or academia in mainstreaming the need to promote racial equality in Brazil”, said Ambassador Vieira. “Music such as Samba originated in Africa and today is part of the Brazilian musical DNA”.

Mr. Rodney Leon, the designer of the Permanent Memorial to Honour the Victims of the Transatlantic Slave Trade at the United Nations, spoke about the process of creating the memorial. In addition to incorporating three elements – acknowledge the tragedy, consider the legacy, lest we forget – Mr. Leon designed the memorial to be educational, symbolic and a place where people could reflect on the significance of the millions of deaths of Africans and people of African descent.

“People pass through the Ark of Return in commemoration of those who passed away”, Mr. Leon explained. “It is a process of healing, returning and taking back what was lost historically.” He referred to the memorial as “The Ark of Return”, a project name that has been adopted for the memorial, because it stands in contrast to “The Door of No Return” from where enslaved Africans departed Senegal’s Gorée Island.

Ms. Essence Gant, Beauty Director at the popular media company BuzzFeed, delivered the keynote address, entitled “Black Representation in the Arts and its Impact on Justice”. She engaged students with her opening line: “Free lipstick is great, but representation is greater.” Her remarks focused on the impact of black representation in movies, commercials, magazines, billboards and other forms of media.

“People of African descent are overwhelmingly portrayed as coming from families living in poverty compared to white families”, said Ms. Gant. “In addition, black families are overrepresented in criminality”. However, those portrayals do not match up with real statistics, she added. Ms. Gant said she used her position to normalize representation of black people in the media by using images of black people in her stories. When the industry gets representation wrong, she calls them out on it.

The Conference ended with a trivia session led by H.E. Ms. I. Rhonda King, the Permanent Representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to the United Nations. Ambassador King explained how the transatlantic slave trade played out differently in her country. The indigenous Kalinago people offered refuge to enslaved Africans who were shipwrecked off the coast of the Saint Vincent and later to people who escaped slavery. “But in 1764, the British instituted organized slavery and a sugar economy”, she said. “Resistance to slavery hastened its demise and slavery ended 75 years later in 1838”.

Students from New York, Kenya and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines presented research projects on: Barbara Jones-Hogu, an American civil rights artist who co-founded the artists’ collective AfriCOBRA; Aaron Douglas, an American painter and major figure in the Harlem Renaissance; Kenyan-Mexican actor Lupita Nyong’o; and Vincentian dramatist David Williams.

The videoconference was moderated by Ms. Kimberly Mann, Chief of the Education Outreach Section.

Watch the archived webcast.

Panellists (L-R) – Rodney Leon, Essence Gant, Amb. Mauro Vieira, Kimberly Mann ;
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Students from Wyandanch School District, New York.
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Students from Girls’ High School in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Photo/Sabrina Kirby

Essence Gant with student participants.
Photo/Cathy Smith

Student participants from Nairobi.
Photo/UNIC Nairobi

Students and teachers from East Stroudsburg High School.
Photo/Cathy Smith

Students visit the Ark of Return.
Photo/Cathy Smith

Amb. King of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines with student presenters and
Kimberly Mann.

UN Web Services Section, Department of Global Communications, © United Nations