Slavery: memory and afterlives

What role does memory play in the politics of the present? How can we build better futures through politicising the past? The Brigstow Institute brings us a series reflecting on these questions.

Julia O'Connell Davidson
27 August 2016

A procession for Slavery Remembrance Day. Department for Local Communities and Government//flickr.cc(by-nd)

Tomorrow, 23 August 2016, is International Slavery Remembrance Day; yesterday, the UK’s first ever memorial service to the victims of the transatlantic slave trade/African holocaust was held in Trafalgar Square. But what exactly should or can we remember, and why, and what should we ‘do’ with these memories? The forthcoming series of articles will reflect on these questions as they relate to the memory of slavery and the different conversations that can be had about its past and present. But they do not, and cannot, provide the answer to these questions, for there is no simple or single answer.

History and Remembrance

A call for remembrance is not necessarily a call for closer attention to the details of history. It is not essential to be well acquainted with geopolitics or military history in order to remember the war dead. Nor does remembering those whose lives were destroyed by slavery require a knowledge of historic slave regimes. But in former slave and colonial states like Britain, there is a difference between the remembrance of war and the remembrance of transatlantic slavery. Because the latter disrupts the dominant, self-congratulatory national narrative about a country’s love of liberty, equality, democracy and justice.

There is also a perceived question mark over the ‘we’ who will do the remembering. In nationalist acts of remembrance, all citizens alike are positioned as owing a debt to the soldiers who are said to have ‘given’ their lives in defending (or aggrandising) the nation. But do all citizens stand in the same relation to the Africans whose lives were stolen to fuel a system that enriched nations, cities, and private individuals? Even if remembrance is made international and imagined as an act of humanitarian mourning, the problem remains. Transatlantic slavery divided and dislocated human populations, and its abolition did not undo those divisions or restore communities.  The particular character of slavery’s violence is, in Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman’s words, “ongoing and constitutive of the unfinished project of freedom”. If ‘we’ look back in sorrow, we do not do so from the same blank territory of a presumed universal humanity. We do so from our own particular position in the ugly tapestry of inequality woven by the violence and displacement of transatlantic slavery.

A Question of Race?

Race is central to that horrible tapestry, but also complicated. Though every person racialised as black and now living in former slave or colonial states will have experienced, in one way or another, the destructive powers of the anti-black racism spawned by transatlantic slavery, not all will have or feel any personal connection to those who were once enslaved. In fact, for many, their first experience of racism may only have been when slavery was mentioned in the classroom. Plus, as Edson Burton points out in his article for this series, those racialised as black are also divided by class, as well as gender, religion, sexuality, and so on.

It is also complicated because being anti-slavery is not the same as rejecting the ideology of race. Many white nineteenth century abolitionists bitterly condemned the human suffering wreaked by slavery without at the same time considering black people to be qualified for freedom and citizenship in white societies. Today, it is perfectly possible for people racialised as white to sincerely mourn the fate of the enslaved without simultaneously challenging anti-black racism or questioning their own white privilege. In this context, what are the dangers and the possibilities opened up by calls for transatlantic slavery remembrance?

Remembering Transatlantic Slavery as a Holocaust

A poster created by British-based slavery remembrance activists is currently displayed on a billboard on South Lambeth Road, Vauxhall. It features a photograph taken in 1863 of a man named Gordon, who had been enslaved on a Louisiana plantation. The photograph shows him in sitting posture. His face is clear in full profile, but the viewer’s attention is commanded by his bared back, described by a contemporary observer as, “Scarred, gouged, gathered in great ridges, knotted, furrowed, the poor tortured flesh stands out a hideous record of the slave-driver’s lash…From such evidence as this, there is no escape, and to see is to believe”.

Why ask people in 21st Century London to look at this image? One reason is that the way history is taught and publicly commemorated in Britain and other former slaving powers does allow escape from evidence like the photo of Gordon’s scourged back. In fact, in Britain, the story of transatlantic slavery is frequently used primarily as a vehicle for proud memories of the white Britons who played a role in its legal abolition. And such national or civic pride is often equally taken in white Britons who, despite actively profiting from their involvement in the murderous trade, also contributed to the wellbeing of their British brethren (to be discussed in forthcoming articles by Olivette Otele, Madge Dresser, and Christine Townsend on Edward Colston’s public memorialisation in Bristol).

Against this, Gordon’s image publicly recalls the immense violence enacted upon the victims of transatlantic slavery, and the overwhelming physical force required to transport people into, and prevent them fleeing from, slavery. It acts as a reminder of the many millions who died en route, who were gruesomely tortured and executed by state officials, and who were starved, beaten or worked to death by slaveholders. It focuses attention on transatlantic slavery as a holocaust, in the sense that it entailed the systematic destruction and slaughter of Africans and their descendants on a mass scale.

The billboard is titled ‘the African Holocaust Censored’ because when the Stop the Maangamizi organisation sought to advertise its annual march for Reparatory Justice in a major national newspaper earlier this year, it was told the paper would not print an advert containing the phrase ‘African Holocaust’ because the word ‘holocaust’ was reserved for the Jewish community. But use of the term ‘holocaust’ and demands for public acknowledgment of the suffering of the enslaved does not detract from similar claims by any other group.

Reflecting on the vast disparity between the public outpouring of grief in the US for the lives lost in the attacks of 11 September 2001, and the lack of interest in the hundreds of thousands of civilians who subsequently died as a result of the US ‘War on Terror’, Judith Butler has observed that not all lives are regarded as grievable. Some lost lives are not publicly mourned because they are not seen “as worthy of protection, as belonging to subjects with rights that ought to be honored”. Calls to remember transatlantic slavery as an African holocaust are, at one level, calls for its victims to be brought into the fold of the grievable. This is not a competition to win a share of a finite quantity of grief, but an assertion of belonging to humankind. No community loses out by its endorsement. In fact, some might argue that it is the poster’s reproduction of the image of Gordon that raises the more difficult ethical questions.

Memory, Bodies and Subjects

Gordon’s back, upon which the violence and suffering of slavery was so inescapably visible, became an iconic anti-slavery image. Yet Gordon was much more than his bodily surface. He was a man who managed to escape the plantation, outwit the slave patrols and bloodhounds that hunted him, and reach the safety of the Union encampment at Baton Rouge. He subsequently joined the Union States Colored Troops and fought in the Civil War. But his courage, ingenuity, and political commitment are not what he is remembered for.

It is true that were we to remember only the bravery of the individuals who escaped, rebelled, and resisted slavery, we would risk minimising the overwhelming structural violence of slavery as an institution, as well as overlooking the quiet courage of the women, men and children who, against such appalling odds, made their lives as best they could within its confines. Yet what kind of memory is invited by a photo that focuses attention on Gordon as a suffering body (the image is sometimes even referred to as ‘the scourged back’)? In the context of the racism that insists on seeing white people as individuals, while reducing Others to mere bodies bearing a racialised category, this image can make people uncomfortable not because they want to deny transatlantic slavery’s mass destruction of African lives, but because they do not want be complicit in the kind of voyeuristic gaze so eloquently interrogated in Susan Sontag’s book, Regarding the Pain of Others.

Mourning and Activism, Mourning As Activism

Courtney Baker has recently observed that to look at the pain and death of others is not necessarily to exercise a dangerous or disabling power. There is also a form of looking, ‘humane insight’, that actively seeks out knowledge about the humanity of the sufferer. And, she concludes, with humane insight comes an understanding that some modes of mourning are also forms of activism. Here is another sense in which historical context matters. Calls for transatlantic slavery remembrance are today being made in the context of a new wave of black political mobilisation to assert the value of black life, resist mass incarceration, call for reparatory justice, demand that public monuments to colonists and slave traders ‘must fall’, insist on the public memorialisation of victims of white supremacist terror, and so on. The important point is not whether remembrance campaigners have satisfactorily resolved every ethical dilemma surrounding the visual representation of slavery; or whether campaigns for reparations or to remove historical monuments succeed; or even whether everyone agrees that they should. The important point is that contemporary black activists are successfully generating public awareness and political debate on transatlantic slavery’s afterlives in Europe and the Americas. In so doing, they are opening up more and different possibilities for collectively remembering transatlantic slavery and collectively weaving a different future from its living remains. And that is a project that all of us can and should get behind.


Beyond Trafficking and Slavery would like to thank Bristol University’s Brigstow Institute for this series on Slavery, Memory and Afterlives. Brigstow look at what it means to be human in the 21st Century, and that necessarily involves examining the past as it forms the present. This series will do just that, building bridges between past and present, between different disciplines, and between academics and activists.


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