Contemporary forms of racism, prejudice and discrimination did not just emerge from a vacuum and their roots run deep into our collective conscience, feeding like scarecrows off the same sallow ideas that underpinned the transatlantic slave trade, says United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO) special envoy to Haiti Michaëlle Jean.
“How many of us are willing to bleach our skin several tones lighter?” Canada’s former Governor General asked in her keynote address at the recent launch of The Harriet Tubman Institute Itineraries of African-Canadian Memory Initiative at York University. “How many of us are ashamed of the beautiful kinks in our natural hair? How many of us have been refused housing for a disingenuous reason? How many of us have been stopped on the side of the street for walking while Black as the young people like to say?
“That is a legacy of slavery and one that persists in distorting our social interactions and diminishing or increasing – depending on where you stand – our sense of self. That is why I encourage you to scour through the archives brought to life so vividly in Marcel Trudel’s Two Centuries of Slavery in Quebec and Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes. That’s why I encourage you to wander along the graceful streets of St. Catharines where a vibrant community of freed slaves once flourished.
“I invite you to meditate peacefully in the mostly unmarked slave cemeteries of south western Quebec. And I invite you to learn from the experience of our African brothers and sisters of Nova Scotia. When you do so, be attentive and listen carefully for you will hear, ever so faintly, the voices of African-Canadian women and men, free and enslaved, exhorting us never, ever to forget the gruesome chapters in our nation’s history. Their message – never forget – resonates deep in my heart.”
Jean said that message resonated with her during a state visit to sub-Saharan and North Africa in late 2006. The first official state visit took her to Algeria, Mali, Ghana, South Africa and Morocco.
She noted her trip to Ghana was particularly meaningful, coming on the heels of the country’s then president John Kufuor’s public apology to the African Diaspora for the role some Blacks played in facilitating the transatlantic slave trade.
The great, great grand-daughter of slaves, Jean said she accepted Kufuor regrets by thanking Ghana for its willingness to confront the past in an honest manner.
“During our bilateral meeting, we both acknowledged that while we cannot go back to correct past injustices, we have a duty to learn from the lessons of the past – even the painful ones – and use that knowledge to build a better future together,” Jean said.
While in Ghana, Jean toured Elmina Castle – a trade settlement that became one of the most important stops on the African slave trade route – where she saw the darks corridors through which the slaves were escorted on their way to the dungeons where they were enchained before being shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas.
She said she experienced the same pain while visiting a similar fortress (Slave House) on Senegal’s Goree Island from which slaves were shipped for nearly 312 years. Goree was designated a World Heritage site in 1978.
“Standing in prayer in some of the darkest cells where women and men had once been tortured, I could still make out the stench of human suffering and hear the faint moans of the captives, whispering, “never forget’,” said Jean. “Even though I felt a sense of emptiness as I faced that door of no return and confronted the terrors of the past, I found strength and comfort in the joyful noises of children playing on the same beach upon which the slave ships were once anchored. Their playful sounds reminded me that in the midst of adversity, pain and suffering, life, joy and humanity always triumph over the forces of destruction.
“For despite over 400 years of being subjected to one of the greatest crimes against humanity we, the descendants of slaves, remain standing and the transatlantic slave trade has been torn down. We are survivors. We are strong. My return to the land of our ancestors, Africa, evoked in my mind the very history we are commemorating today on the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.”
In March 2007, Jean opened The Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African People to mark the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate at the event.
“As a Black woman from the Americas, I was so moved to celebrate the launching of the institute at a time in which our entire nation was marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in the British Empire,” said Jean who came to Canada in 1968 as a refugee from Haiti. “As we pondered the significance of the bicentenary, we vowed to do everything in our power to see the 400-year-old story of Canada’s African Diaspora given its due recognition. So you can imagine how delighted I am four years later to see that we have stayed true to our promise.”