Each semester, I embark on a learning journey by creating educational opportunities for students with the goal of bridging the knowledge gap and dispelling myths about Africa. This begins with the knowledge of what slavery truly is. Through a culmination of years of research and collaboration with scholars like Professor Simone Gbolo (University of Minnesota), I developed study abroad coursework in Ghana. While visiting Cape Coast Castle, one of my students stated: “slavery was 400 years ago in an attempt to create distance from the enduring legacy of slavery.” This statement reflects the cognitive dissonance and historical amnesia of far too many Americans. Correctly stated, slavery in the United States dates back to 1619 (400 years ago).
For many African Americans like me, slavery is only a few generations away. The institution of slavery impacted a great-grandparent who experienced firsthand the horrors of slavery and their freedom evolved into a life of sharecropping and abject poverty in cities in the South and in the North (during the Great Migration). This became a moment of critical reflection (i.e., truth in the pursuit of reconciliation) for our students as we seek to explore the present-day effects of slavery. One such example is the economic inequality identified by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, which projects it would take almost 228 years to bridge the household wealth gaps between blacks and whites.
The emergence of mass incarceration and Prison Industrial Complex has been characterized as “slavery by another name” due to the nature of the Thirteenth Amendment’s exception clause. This Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, “As the end of slavery left a void in the Southern labor market, the criminal justice system became one of the primary means of continuing the legalized involuntary servitude of African Americans.” This is still true in 2019, over 150 years since the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Legal scholar and author Michelle Alexander’s research reveals there are more black men behind bars or impacted by the criminal justice system than who were enslaved during the 1800s.
These experiences of injustice are not just limited to African Americans but stretch across the African Diaspora. African nations have been robbed of both human capital and physical capital. The economies of many countries like the United States, Britain, and France have flourished due to the denigration and exploitation of the labor of enslaved Africans. With the opening of the new Senegal Museum of Black Civilizations, one is left to ponder when the artifacts stolen from Africa will return to their rightful abode. “The scale of artifacts in question is staggering. Up to 95 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage is held outside Africa by major museums. France alone holds 90,000 sub-Saharan African objects in its museums” (The New York Times, “Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations Welcomes Some Treasures Home”). These are just a few examples from an exhaustive list of the enduring legacy of slavery.
Year of Return
2019 marks the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in the United States in 1619. This is a time to pause, reflect, and act. Momentum is building nationally and globally. In 2013, the UN declared 2015–2024 the International Decade for People of African Descent to “promote respect, protection and fulfilment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of people of African descent.” Furthermore, H.R.1242—400 Years of African-American History Commission Act—was passed on May 1, 2017, and established the Commission to develop and carry out activities throughout the United States to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in the English colonies at Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619. Moreover, Ghana President Akufo-Addo declared a clarion call to take action by declaring this year as “The Year of Return.”
The time is now for a Sankofa moment. Sankofa reflects the philosophy of “go back and fetch it.” It also means “we must return to the source.” Through a candid discussion about the legacy of slavery, we first must pay homage to the enslaved Africans who shaped the course of world history and advanced global development through their hard work, fierce determination, and unwavering faith. Their blood, sweat, and tears nourished the fertile soil of our global economies. As we experience a Sankofa moment, we will also discover our shared humanity and common destiny. This will challenge each of us to keep our hands on the plow by eradicating the injustices manifested in our laws and policies. Hold on, hold steadfast to the cause of justice and freedom for all!
The author dedicates this article to the princes and princesses buried on the shores of Key West. Lest, we forget.