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Civil society gathering discusses role of memorials in showcasing Transatlantic Slave Trade history and contributions of people of African descent

28 March 2019 – Monuments and memorials play a crucial role in preserving and managing memory, as well as educating the public about the history and cultural impact of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. That was the focus of today’s briefing for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which was organized by the United Nations Department of Global Communications under the title: “The role of memorials in preserving history.”

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 Sherrill D. Wilson, Professor of Urban Anthropology and founding Director of the Office of Public Education and Interpretation for the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York.

The panelists included: Marie-Paule Roudil, Director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Liaison Office in New York and UNESCO Representative to the United Nations; Rodney Leon, Designer of the Ark of Return, the Permanent Memorial to Honour the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade at the United Nations; Jacques Martial, President of Mémorial ACTe in Guadeloupe; Malick Kane, Cultural Administrator at the World Foundation for the Memorial and Safeguarding of Gorée in Senegal; and Noah J. Brown, a nineteen-year-old artist, designer and curator from Toronto.

In her opening remarks, Dr. Wilson said, “The value of monuments is that they speak for those African ancestors from the past. They speak to us in the present. And ultimately, they speak to our descendants in the future, our children’s children.” Calling for Black communities to rewrite their history into one of inclusion rather than exclusion, she said, “The single greatest challenge we face today is that we must continue in the struggle to go forth creating additional monuments, public signage, historical markers.”

Ms. Roudil focused on how, since its inception, UNESCO had consistently worked towards raising awareness of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, including through its Slave Routes project. She also mentioned that UNESCO was launching a book entitled Legacies of Slavery: A Resource Book for Managers of Sites and Itineraries of Memory, which provides a comparative analysis of experiences in the preservation and promotion of memorial sites across the world and proposes practical guidance for their management and development.

In his presentation, Mr. Leon said that memorials were sacred spaces designed to psychologically and spiritually transport visitors to a place where acknowledgment, education, reflection, and healing could take place. Explaining how he had designed the Ark of Return, he said its exterior form was meant to resemble a ship, in acknowledgment of the millions of Africans transported on slave ships. Images of maps depicting the triangular slave trade influenced his use of the triangle as a primary element in designing the memorial's shape. The memorial was also organized so that visitors could pass through it and intimately experience the three primary elements in the interior space, namely: “Acknowledge the Tragedy”, “Consider the Legacy”, and “Lest we Forget”.

Mr. Martial shared with the audience important historical dates related to slavery in Guadeloupe. He also noted that, in 2001, the French National Parliament voted unanimously to declare slavery and the slave trade a crime against humanity. Explaining the Mémorial ACTe’s unique “Silver Roots on a Black Box” design, he said that the memorial highlighted the history and memory of enslaved Africans. But it also paid tribute to indentured servants who had been brought to Guadeloupe from India. The memorial had a permanent exhibition showcasing patrimonial objects, art and new technologies. It also explored new forms of slavery across the world that existed even today.

Mr. Kane showed a video highlighting international support for the envisioned Gorée Island Memorial in Senegal, which had not yet been built. He said the memorial would reflect a message of self-esteem and self-confidence for the victims of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and their families. Its core value had been described by Joseph Ki-Zerbo of Burkina Faso, who had said, “Africa… has been torn apart and scattered over the earth. It is our responsibility to put it back together.” The memorial would be designed to highlight the divided villages that were separated during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It would contain an African narrative that should be written and taught to the whole continent by fellow Africans.

Given the importance of young people in the conversation, Mr. Brown was designated as the event’s youth speaker. Presenting his own work, which explored different forms of gender expression and racial identity, he said that youth today were unaware of their ancestral identity and their historic ties due to the large loss of information that occurred following the Transatlantic Slave Trade. He also showcased the artwork of other artists of color who had been born after 1991. These artists were connected to the African diaspora and were working to dismantle the systematically oppressive concepts prevalent in society. Noah concluded by saying, “Knowledge is power… If young artists of color continue to exhibit their works to the public, we as a society can listen and learn from their stories to become an accepting human race.”

Following the presentations, the moderator guided the attendees through a question and answer segment. 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

The role of memorials in preserving history event photo

[From left to right] Hawa Diallo, UN Department of Global Communications; Malick Kane, World Foundation for the Memorial and Safeguarding of Gorée, Senegal; Rodney Leon, Designer of The Ark of Return; Marie-Paule Roudil, UNESCO Representative to the UN; Sherrill D. Wilson; Jacques Martial, President of Mémorial ACTe, Guadeloupe; Kimberly Mann, UN Department of Global Communications; Noah J. Brown; Maher Nasser, Director, Outreach Division, UN Department of Global Communications. Photo: Bo Li]

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