I recently attended a ten-day Yad Vashem seminar in Jerusalem, Israel, where my fellow students and I studied the Holocaust, as well as the millennia-worth of anti-Semitism that paved the way for the Nazis’ vile actions against European Jewry. Aside from running courses, Yad Vashem contains an amazing museum, remembrance gardens, monuments, installations and other structures dedicated to remembering the Holocaust (or Shoah).
One of the issues I found most thought-provoking at Yad Vashem were the parallels between the Shoah and the Transatlantic Traffic in Enslaved Africans (TTEA or the ‘slave trade’). As a student of the latter, I have an extensive knowledge of all things pertaining to slavery and freedom. (Between 2005 and 2008 I was project director of Set All Free, the British churches’ response to marking the bicentenary of Britain’s ending of the slave trade. Equally, I am the author of ‘Abolition’, the best-selling book on African chattel enslavement in the Anglophone Caribbean.)
In both instances, millions either suffered and/or died as a result of unspeakable wickedness, causing the world to reflect on how those who described themselves as Christians could permit this to happen. We also know that Christianity played an important role in each; several verses in the Gospels (Matthew and John) were twisted by some early Christians to accuse Jewish people of ‘killing’ Jesus, resulting in the anti-Semitism that characterised their experiences in Europe. Similarly, a variety of Hebrew and New Testament Scriptures were used by Christians to justify the enslavement and brutal treatment of Africans. The racism and ‘Afrophobia’ that took root during this era is still rampant today.
For me, the real differences between the two remain in the way these histories are curated and remembered. Yad Vashem is a well-resourced institution, largely staffed by Jewish academics, which tells the story of the Holocaust from a Jewish perspective. Conversely, apart from the United States, there is very little of any historical or educational worth in the Caribbean or West Africa that does justice to the TTEA’s enormity. The Caribbean, possibly out of fear of offending White tourists, has nothing of substance that tells the story of African enslavement and freedom, while the slave museums in West Africa – if you can call them that – are invariably stuffed with the instruments of torture that punished Africans.
Likewise, the African ‘slave forts’ and ‘barracoons’ provide a graphic example of the terror and violence of the human traffic, but fail to explore the impact this protracted activity had on African families, communities and society. Additionally, most European museums focusing on African enslavement are bereft of Black input; White academics are largely responsible for the lion’s share of the activities, with Black academics or heritage experts called in at the culmination to endorse what has already been assembled.
The rationale for the aforementioned approach is the importance of impartiality and factuality regarding the events of the past. All the latter is true, but the race-related dimension of African enslavement, which still elicits anger, shame, embarrassment and discomfiture, means emotional detachment is virtually impossible. I know this because I have had to sit through many church events (often during Black History Month) where White Christian academics over-emphasise Black collusion in African enslavement, and accentuate White Christian agency in African freedom. The ‘Black’ contribution at these events would usually involve a Gospel choir belting out spirited versions of Amazing Grace, the hymn written by the former slave trader turned abolitionist, John Newton.
There is little doubt that the “nothing about us, without us” methodology ensures that one avoids what Yad Vashem describes as the ‘instrumentalising’ or ‘decontextualising’ of past events, which sees direct comparisons made between the Shoah and contemporary atrocities. No such sensibilities are extended to Black folks and African enslavement. During the 2007 slave trade bicentenary, two leading anti-slavery organisations devised a campaign which juxtaposed African slavery with its modern-day equivalent. They devised an image, which was a combination of a slave ship which morphed into an airplane, to highlight the way people have been trafficked into slavery. In doing so, they failed to acknowledge that as many as two in five Africans failed to survive the tortuous, protracted Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas. Conversely, no such mortality rates or pain levels are experienced by modern-day ‘slaves’ on relatively short airline flights.
I would argue that it is important for Black Christians to engage with this subject, as the issue of slavery-related reparations has resurfaced with a vengeance in those countries directly connected to African chattel enslavement. Despite its initial reluctance to engage with its history, there is now a strong and growing reparations movement in the Caribbean, which is being spearheaded by academic institutions. Equally, the USA had Senate hearings earlier this year on the matter, while in this country there is a vocal ‘Stop the Maangamizi’ (the TTEA genocide) campaign exploring reparations in their broadest sense.
Given the Church’s role in slavery and freedom, it will undoubtedly be part of this conversation, whether it likes it or not. A sensible approach would be to engage with this history – warts and all – to ensure that we learn the lessons of the past and apply them to the present. Historic truth-telling will set us all upon a road which frees us from the chains of the past.