An Oct. 5-9, 1999 conference sponsored by
NYU's Institute for African-American Affairs.
Coverage by undergraduate journalism students.
DID THEY GO?
Her back was huddled with age, but tall with pride and many stories to tell. Vinie Burrows, a performer, writer, and actress was dressed in traditional African clothing. The blue dress was lightly printed and she wore a headdress to match. Standing there, thin, wavering in both body and voice, her eyes lowered as she began, "I shall tell of the good slave days, but I never seen good days then."
The old woman continued. "I tended to the children when I was a little girl, but when I was ten, I was sent to the cotton patch." She describes an episode when the wife of her master beat her to the point of near death, and later rubbed salt onto the wounds as punishment for eating a biscuit. Her chanting rhythm speeds up as she goes back further in time to describe the experience of being transported on a slave ship. "Whip light is crawling down to the ship-limbo like me-ship is the whip-the darkness is over me-the water is surrounding me-dark ground is under me-dumb guards are raising me---hot slow step onto the burning ground."
She finished the performance. The audience went silent. For a moment, no one could clap. A young man in the audience screamed out, "Teach." At that moment the audience gratefully applauded the performance.
Genna Rae McNeil served as facilitator to the panel "Distribution of the Enslaved." The purpose of this panel was to review how the slave trade moved forward since it began, but the emphasis was placed on how culture changed as Africans were spread out to different locations. The desire to create a strong African Diaspora was a consistent theme. McNeil is currently a professor of history at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, specializing in African-American history and 20th Century U.S. history. She is the author of two books, Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights and African Americans and the Living Constitution.
The mostly black audience of about 150 people warmed to her as she warmed them. They nodded as though they were a part of each other, even though many were strangers. Later, when a woman thanked Burrows for her touching performance and began to cry, there was someone there to touch her hand.
The bottom line of this conference, Michael Angelo Gomez said, is that "the past is very much present." Gomez is new to the history department at New York University, having previously taught at Spelman College and the University of Georgia. His recent book, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South, pieces together a genealogy of blacks in the southern part of the United States.
In an interview, Gomez said the conference focused on creating a strong African Diaspora, a cultural feeling that connects people of African descent. "The African Diaspora is a formal field of discourse that has yet to be fully organized," he said. "There are those involved in the formal organization of the African Diaspora as an academic field." He mentioned that NYU's curriculum includes coursework on the subject.
However, he did acknowledge the desire African Americans have to regain control of this academic field, which has long been the province of researchers outside the community. His sense is that although the topic should remain specific to the community, he did not see this as a rejection of nonblacks.
The "panoply of cultures" at the conference impressed Gomez, who noted the presence of North and South Americans, Puerto Ricans and Europeans, among others. Many of the people from these locations have a slave ancestry.
In his speech, Gomez looked at the distribution of slaves beginning along the coast of Africa, mostly from the Gold Coast and Biafra. Slaves were mostly taken to Brazil, the Caribbean, Peru, sections of Europe, and to the colonies, he said. He compared the numbers of men, women, and children taken from Africa during the trade, how it changed over the years, and which nations dominated the trade at different times.
Sex and age composition is something that changed throughout the 15th to the 19th centuries. "While the numbers of men and children increased, prepubescent children quadrupled in the 19th century," Gomez said. Women were needed for reproduction. Many of the men were taken to Cuba and Brazil.
Johannes Postma, the only white speaker on the panel is a Dutch historian and author of The Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600-1815. He is a professor of European and American history at Minnesota State University at Mankato. The book, a 20-year effort, was long considered a major source of information on the slave trade, but new information has since come to light, including the recent discovery of 46 previously unknown slave commodity voyages.
While Postma opted to stay away from the numbers, data, and analysis -- cold logic, he called it during his speech -- he did say that most of the information on how many slaves entered the trade comes from archived business documents. The newly discovered 46 ships indicates an underestimate of the accepted figure of 11 million to 12 million slaves by as many as 6,000 people.
While Postma's book studied the numbers of slave ships that sailed and how many slaves they carried to the new lands, he acknowledged that the figures are not exact. Perhaps not all ships were documented, or documented correctly, he said, nor do the figures take shipwrecks or mid-voyage captures into account.
At the end of the panel, during the question and answer period, one audience member couldn't resist asking Postma, "Why are you studying this? Were your ancestors the captains of the ships?" Other individuals in the audience said "thank you" or "yes" to the person who asked the question. Postma shook his head. "Actually," he said, "my ancestors were peasants. I associate more with the slaves than I do with the captains of slave ships."
Later, in an interview with Postma, he added, "I have always been interested in the people on the losing end."
Produced for the Web by Michael Smith