An Oct. 5-9, 1999, conference sponsored by
NYU's Institute for African-American Affairs.
Coverage by undergraduate journalism students.



by John Taranto

A bronze medallion engraved with equally weighted scales adorned the mahogany podium. To its left stood Old Glory doing what she does best: serving as a silent symbol of the nation's freedom. But to the right of that flag and behind the lectern, over the course of the evening, a distinguished group of scholars and special guests came to bring awareness to what more than one of them referred to as America's 350-year Holocaust.

It was the opening plenary session of "Slave Routes: The Long Memory," a six-day symposium involving workshops, panel discussions, art exhibitions, dance and music performances and movie screenings at New York University, October 5-10. The idea was to take an in-depth look at what have become the repercussions of the slave trade of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

A crowd of over five hundred mostly African-American, well-educated, middle-aged people filled Vanderbilt Hall in the law school on the NYU campus, frequently interrupting the speakers with shouts of "Yes" and "Teach" and "Speak." That and the absence of many college-, high school- or younger children left the sense that the evening's orators were gainlessly preaching to the converted. Only about 15 percent of the audience was white. The presenters spoke with eloquence, force and persuasive power. Each conveyed a similar but clear underlying idea -- that the slave trade played an enormous role in developing the Western Hemisphere -- but did so from intriguingly different angles.



Poet Maya Angelou Stirs Listeners During Opening Session of Symposium

by Lisa Zlotnick

Maya Angelou
Courtesy Aiko Ishikawa, WSN

Angelou's Song
[mp3 format - 275KB
go to for
free mp3 player]

"Bid em' in," intoned the regal black lady in red, then quickened her rhythm to finish the verse: "Bid em' in, bid em' in, bid em' in."

The room grew silent and no one stirred.

It was Maya Angelou as auctioneer, reciting, half-singing an Oscar Brown Jr. poem about a young girl's degradation on the slave market: being sold to the highest bidder. ("She's young, she's ripe... 'Strip her down Roy' ...can I get 350? Bid em' in, bid em' in, bid em' in.") The Nobel laureate reminded the assembled that no matter how eminent the participants or scholarly the occasion, there is no possible talk of the Middle Passage, of origins, of distribution, demographics or documentation, or any authentic discussion of slavery that does not begin with the people, the slave experience.



Courtesy Aiko Ishikawa, WSN


Links to Biographies

"Slavery was perpetrated in the pursuit of material wealth, fueled by greed and the lust for power, and operated under the guise of carrying out a civilizing mission, said to be divinely ordained..."
- Rex Nettleford -

"[This conference is] forcing all of us to begin to grapple with the real meaning of that experience, which yes, was a period of victimization, yes was a period of domination, exploitation and oppression, but it was in the context of the slave trade and slavery that we, people of African descent, in this hemisphere made ourselves, created ourselves, laid the foundations for everything that we have become..."
- Howard Dodson -

"Scholars should never lose sight of the fact that the slave trade is and was about people."
- Colin Palmer -

"[I said] 'Dad, why do [white people] beat black people?'" He shrugged his shoulders...So I stopped asking questions. [I thought I had found] something shameful in my past."
- Maryse Condé -

"It has been particularly bothersome to me that we have expended so much energy talking about...affirmative action. Why expend so much energy defending a thin dime when a fortune is due?"
- Randall Robinson -

"A lot of individuals supported our proposal [for the conference] and a few said why now? Why bring up this painful subject of slavery and the slave trade? Why now? And we said 'Why not now?'"
- Jayne Cortez -

"I think the best reparation we can find is to deal with the conditions of the descendants of the slaves."
-Amadou Mahtar M'Bow-

"Silence can't simply be understood as something that only needs to broken, but also must be reconfigured...and understood..."
- Tricia Rose -

"It is important to look out [in the audience] and see graduate and undergraduate students who have an interest in this subject, because someday you got to take my job from me and tell some more of the truth and tell some more of the stories that this nation has systemically discarded on the subject of slavery."
-Steven C. Newsome-

- Maya Angelou -

-Manthia Diawara -


Produced for the web by Erika Roberson and Sarah Alger