Rhode Island Slavery Symposium May 10th -11th

By: Nick Draper

On Saturday 11th May, I spoke about the LBS project at a symposium at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island entitled ‘The Slave: Freedom on My Mind/Knowledge/Memory and the Arts of the Enslaved.’

The symposium was organised by Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice to mark the end of its inaugural year. The Center, headed by Professor Anthony Bogues, is intended to be a permanent expression of the recognition by Brown of its historical relationship to racial slavery and the Atlantic slave-trade. In 2003, the President of Brown, Ruth Simmons, appointed a Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, charged with investigating and analysing the historical connections of Brown with the slave-trade and slavery. Brown had been founded in 1764 (as the College of Rhode Island), when Providence was the major centre in North America of the slave-trade and Providence later became a leading textile town, processing slave-grown cotton from the  southern states before the American Civil War. Brown’s historical linkages to slavery in these contexts were presented in an exceptionally nuanced report in 2006 entitled Slavery and Justice.  This self-examination and public accounting by Brown remains a unique process among educational institutions both in North America and Europe.

The creation for the Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice as an interdisciplinary scholarly research centre with a public educational mission was one of the steps recommended by the Steering Committee, and the symposium was one of the first fruits of the Center’s work.  It brought together scholars in particular of American and Brazilian slavery, but also included representatives from the English-speaking (although not francophone) Caribbean.  The two-day event was organised in 4 panels, following the topics in the symposium’s title (see below for details), each chaired by a member of the Brown faculty. I was not able to reach Providence for the first day, and so participated only in the third and fourth sessions.

The focus of the symposium was clearly on the agency of enslaved people across the full spectrum of human activity. Our approach to slavery in the LBS project, through the slave-owner, represents a distinctly different way in to the subject and its problems. I found that many of the papers that I heard, both in their subject matter and their methods, shed new light (for me) not only on what other scholars are doing and thinking about but also on new questions we could and perhaps should be asking in our work. Conversely, I believe that at least some of the audience saw how in turn our work could connect with their own.

On top of this kind of cross-fertilisation, a further test of a successful symposium is whether there is an after-life in the form of a formal network, which Tony Bogues will attempt to establish among the delegates. A final test is whether it extends or reinforces one’s own informal network, which this one certainly did in my case.

As often with events at US universities, I was struck by both the professionalism of the organisers and the wealth of resources at their disposal. At the same time, it was clear that for a number of the speakers from outside the US, the single issue for them in pursuing their work was lack of resources. There’s a reflexive temptation to think of English universities as sitting in the middle of this spectrum, but it’s not true, we’re of course a very great deal closer to the US than the Caribbean or South Africa, and hearing several delegates reminded me how deeply privileged we are in the funding we’ve had and continue to have for the LBS project.

The four panels and their respective speakers and titles were:

1.  Freedom on my mind

Professor Sir Hilary Beckles (University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados), ‘“These old wounds just won’t heal”: “Dissing” the diaspora at the UN Race Conference at Durban, South Africa, 2001.’

Professor Roquinaldo Ferreira (Brown University), ‘Slave flights and runaway communities in Angola (17th-19th centuries).’

Professor Alejandro de la Fuente (University of Pittsburgh), ‘Slaves and the making of slave law.’


2. Arts, aesthetics and the enslaved: envisioning freedom

Professor Marcus Wood (University of Sussex), ‘Exploding the diasporic archive: meditations on art, slavery, Brazil, America and the limits of cultural memory.’

Professor Deborah Willis (Tisch School of Arts, New York University), ‘Visualising Emancipation: photography as an intervention.’

Barbaro Martinez-Ruiz, ‘African spirituality in Modern Art.’


3. Slave knowledge: what did the slave think and know?

Professor James Sweet (University of Wisconsin), ‘Africanising Atlantic world history: methods, sources, epistemology, ontology.’

Professor Geri Augusto (Visiting Associate Professor, Brown), ‘Mandioca and okra: Tupi and Kongo botany in Dutch Brazil’s “Palace of Freedom”.’

Professor Wlamyra Ribeiro de Albuquerque, ‘Citizenship, Emancipation and racialization in Brazil.’


4. Memory and Public History: reflecting on a past which is present.

Professor Verene Shepherd (University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica), ‘Monuments, memorialization and Black identity.’

Shanaaz Gallant (Iziko Museums of South Africa), ‘Remembering against silence: representations of public memory in the Slave Lodge.’

Professor Spencer Crewe (George Mason University), ‘Remembering Emancipation and who freed the enslaved.’

Dr Nick Draper (University College, London) ‘Making History Public: the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project.’