International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade

UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, commemorates the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition on August 23.

Slavery may be a thing of the past, but its legacy remains very much with us, and in ways you might not think of at first.

This day marks the start of the Haitian Revolution

The Haitian Revolution was the first slave revolt to create a free and independent state.

August 23 marks the start of the Revolution on the night of August 22, 1791 as a tropical storm came over the island.

Saint-Domingue was the richest Caribbean colony

The French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) on the island of Hispaniola was one of the richest colonies in the world. It exported sugar and coffee.

Saint-Domingue was the crown of the French Empire and represented France in the Americas. This slave colony paid for many beautiful buildings in Paris.

Slavery in Saint-Domingue was brutal

But it was a slave economy. A particularly brutal type of enslavement was practiced there. It was considered better business to work people to death than to care for them.

A small number of French and their families used extreme brutality to control a large number of African slaves.

The colonists not only abused Africans, they abused the land. They ruined the soil and deforested the land, turning the richest colony in the Caribbean into an enduring environmental tragedy.

Other nations punished Haiti for revolting

Inspired by the French Revolution, Haitian slaves finally revolted. People were shocked by the Revolution’s violence without seeing their own hand in it.

French, Spanish and British all entered the fight, complicating things and extending the violence.

After independence, other countries including the U.S. refused to recognize the new nation out of fear that their own slaves would revolt. France required reparations that drained the new country.

Haiti was punished for believing that human rights apply to all.

Slavery was authorized by the Church

There has always been slavery, but the Atlantic slave trade was the only slavery based on race.

It was authorized by the Roman Catholic Church in a papal bull of 1452. Pope Nicholas V gave Portuguese King Afonso V permission to capture non-Christians and hold them in perpetual servitude.

This is probably what Colombian salsa legend Joe Arroyo was referring to when he sang about “esclavitud perpetua” in his signature song No le pegue a la negra (Don’t beat the black woman).

The Church doesn’t support slavery today, but it’s still a disappointing legacy.

The enormity of slavery is hard to digest

It’s not a nice thing to think about, and nobody wants to talk about it, but if we don’t it will continue to devil us.

Enslavers claimed ideals of religion, liberty and democracy. Their ideas seem noble, but become less so when you look at the bigger story. The duplicity of slavers against the backdrop of the Enlightenment is exceptionally cynical.

It’s particularly hard to digest our own role in slavery. Racism exists everywhere, but it doesn’t exist anywhere quite like it does in the United States. Racism is expressed more violently in the United States than elsewhere.

Racism is more institutionalized in U.S. society than you think

Many national institutions are tainted by efforts to exclude and maintain an advantage from the Jim Crow years after the U.S. Civil War.

Our national addiction to sugar is a legacy of slavery.

We don’t have universal health care like other developed nations because an unequal health care system was a means of suppression.

The war on drugs locked up entire communities and destroyed family structures. Our election system gets twisted to make it harder for people of color to vote. Our education system is unequal.

The New York Times 1619 Project points out many of the ways that slavery defines who we are as a society today. It’s unpleasantly surprising how pervasive our racism is.

What is the point of talking about racism and slavery?

It’s a hard thing to talk about and we are all responsible. It’s time for each of us as individuals, communities, a nation, and as citizens of the world to embrace our own responsibility.

Avoiding the legacy of slavery only hardens racism. That is why we need to talk about it.

~ Keith Widyolar

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