Do publishers have a responsibility to accurately reflect American history? Do they capture the human drama of the Slave Trade that crossed the Atlantic Ocean? It’s important to capture heroic stories of survivors. The concern is worldwide.
At a July meeting in Switzerland, Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, responding to the surge of police murders of Black people in the U.S., issued a call for addressing racial justice and human rights. The commissioner’s report includes four points for addressing and eliminating “current racially inspired human rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protests”; one of the four points is “REDRESS: Confront past legacies, take special measures, and deliver reparatory justice.”
Describing the report, she said countries must address the harm that was done by the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and “share the truth about what was done, and the harms it continues to inflict.”
Also in July, Reuters reported that Mike Henry, a member of the Jamaican parliament, plans to seek reparations from Britain for the harm done by the Slave Trade. For centuries, Britain imported more than 600,000 humans from Africa as slaves and exploited their bodies to produce income on the tropical island. Outrageously, when Emancipation came in the 1830s, Britain compensated the slave owners for the loss of their slave property, but did not compensate the enslaved humans for the loss of their bodies and labor.
This news and history touched me not as policy, but as personal family and ancestral experience. I have been researching the colonial experiences of my ancestors in the Americas and the precolonial experiences of my ancestors in Africa. I began by searching and finding the given names of my ancestors in Jamaica, because all I knew were their nicknames I heard from my family. I listened to ancestral stories and history at home, histories I did not hear in school in New York City. Publishers need to help children see the history and the dramatic stories of people who survived.
Britain compensated the slave owners £20 million, a sum equivalent to about £7.6 billion ($10.6 billion) in today’s wealth. Now, Jamaica is petitioning for reparations of £7.6 billion, the equivalent of what was granted to the slave owners in 1834. Reparations are for the descendants of enslaved ancestors.
To learn more than I did in school about the chattel slavery that destroyed the lives of my ancestors, I have traveled a great deal. I wanted to see what human ruins survived of what our ancestors experienced in Jamaica. I visited the remnant skeletons of sugar mills that enslaved ancestors worked in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. When they died at the mills whose timbers were used to crush sugarcane into sugar, the owners replaced them with a new shipment of humans. The sugar mill ruins stand as a testament to how slaves suffered to produce profits for others.
Publishers must help us document an accurate account of the global Slave Trade. As a public speaker about African American ancestry and genealogy, I share the stories and records I have uncovered. When I spoke at a genealogy group
in Philadelphia and showed the image of an invoice ordering African slaves by the ton, a lady in the front row wailed. She was the descendant of Southern sharecroppers, descended from slaves.
At events as a speaker, during my q&a, I allowed space for the audiences to respond to the images of their ancestors’ history of enslavement. By learning, we honor those who remember. At times, even I, an experienced historical researcher, was surprised by those who remember. At a presentation at our parents’ church in the Bronx, N.Y., I described the interconnections of ancestral slavery places and today’s towns and villages. I shared a list showing how the names of slave plantations became place names where the farmers toiled after emancipation. As I scrolled through the list of names, women and men in the congregation started standing up, waving their hands in the air, and crying out the names of their ancestors who toiled in these places as slaves and as poor indentured farmers. They uttered the names of a father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, great-grandparent, ancestor.
Reparations alone cannot atone for slavery’s transgressions, but it’s a start. Publishers must acknowledge the full history of slavery, not only in fiction and nonfiction books, but in textbooks.
Pearl Duncan is completing two nonfiction books, one about her African American ancestors who survived in the Americas and Ghana, and another about the 18th-century merchant cargo ship discovered under the World Trade Center in 2010.