The Impact of ’12 Years A Slave’: Using Family History to address the Legacies of Slavery

Guest Blog by: Patrick Vernon[1]

 The success of Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years A Slave at the Oscars provides a new opportunity to explore the legacy of enslavement through the lens of family history and mental well being. In his acceptance speech, McQueen stated “I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.” Although it may feel coded, the expression ‘endured slavery’ is of major significance when exploring the emotional legacy of the enslaved past; this is because this past still has an impact in terms of behaviour, cultural norms, parenting, relationships, lifestyle choices and in how identity is projected and received, not only for people of African descent, but also for people of European descent. In the United States, academics such as Dr Na’im Akbar and Dr Joy Leary have used the concept of post-traumatic slave syndrome to explain the conditions of African Americans; whilst in the Caribbean, Dr Fred Hickling has established an approach called Psychohistoriography to articulate the post-colonial legacy of slavery and Empire. These approaches on enslavement and mental illness raise major debates on choice, agency and historical labelling of diagnoses which begs the question: where does structural/ historical racism start and personal lifestyle choices take over?

Antigua Slave Register 1817, TNA T 71/244Since there has been no Royal Commission, public inquiry, formal apology or any form of restorative justice which recognises this painful history, the concept of slavery has become further racialised as it has come to be associated with anyone of African heritage. This fuels stereotypes, shame and racism.

We have a national amnesia or are using selected memory about the system of slavery; for example, white British involvement in slavery has been ignored and the focus has turned to narratives in which Africans on the continent were the most important players in this inhuman trade. Such narratives exonerate any pain or guilt for anyone in Britain who was connected with the trade.

Despite the success and impact of Alex Hailey’s book and television series Roots in the 1970s and more recently Who Do You Think You Are which captured the lives of  a number of black personalities such as Colin Jackson, Moira Stuart, Hugh Quarshie and John Barnes , there is still a lack of awareness around family genealogy and intergenerational learning within the black British community.


Produced more than 150 years after the abolition of slavery, which occurred in 1833, the film 12 Years A Slave now provides a real opportunity to have our own truth and reconciliation process by applying the Ubuntu [2] principles that Archbishop Desmond Tutu used during the Commission he chaired in South Africa after Apartheid. Our society needs to start an honest and open debate about the horrors and consequences of enslavement and how it has shaped modern Britain. This context provides a real opportunity to revisit the narrative of enslavement to see how it differs from slavery as it occurred and consider how this has contributed to the broader racial, gender and class inequalities in Britain today. It would show that the family histories of black and white people are intertwined with our shared and collective past of the history of slavery and colonisation.

I have spent the last 14 years not only researching my family history, but supporting thousands of people through establishing my website Every Generation with tips, advice, case studies, organising conferences, workshops, and writing articles on family history. However, after all these years those within the black community are still holding ourselves back from researching our past as result of the legacy of enslavement. Furthermore, many of the Windrush Generation elders, when coming to Britain, redefined their identities to start a new life which meant that some of the family narratives and facts were hidden or slightly fabricated. This applies for members of any migrant community who start a new life in a new country. However, the consequences of this are that when second and third generation members are researching their family history; they are discouraged, prevented or at worst lied to about key facts and information by our elders. This is one of the major barriers to researching black family history today.

Windrush PostcardBy opening the family Pandora box, the skeletons of the past may come to haunt us and thus for the majority of us it is easy just to mythologise our African and Caribbean identities and histories and not explore our personal family histories in detail. This also applies to the white families who benefitted from slavery who also create a mythology where each generation disguises or hides where the real wealth and money came from. Despite this, family history is still important to all of us as part of the healing process; it will enable us to move forward by recognising our family achievements and challenges of the past.

We need to reclaim our family history which will involve more soul searching within own families, but also we to demand resources and funding to support our research as part of a wider dialogue around reparations and restorative justice. I think we need to explore the following solutions below as part of a wider debate on repartitions and restoration for family history and mental well-being; this needs to holistic and creative in approach to build trust and encourage co-production between the black community and the general public.

  • Free genealogy DNA tests along with regular updates over a 5- 10 year period for X, Y and Admixture chromosome (including any new products on the market) to ascertain family history;
  • Genetic counselling and support in understanding the results of DNA tests and its implications;
  • Further research on enslavement and health inequalities around dementia, diabetes, mental health, cancer, fibroids, sickle cell and other hereditary diseases;
  • Free access to websites and online resources which charge a subscription for slave, passenger ship and other key records (e.g. Ancestry)[3];
  • Free support and equipment to digitise personal family history documentation;
  • Free copies of publications, maps, documents and photographic/audio material to support individual family history research;
  • Development of a free online community led ancestral data base and forum to support individuals and communities to share their family research and experiences around enslavement;
  • Support and encourage meetings around reconciliation and dialogue with descendants of the beneficiaries of slavery and of enslaved families;
  • Free access to family historians and genealogist to support individual and family history research;
  • Free access to trauma counselling support services which is cultural accessible and specific to the heritage of African and Caribbean communities;
  • Development of a workforce and leadership training programme in the NHS and third sector around peer support, talking therapies, commissioning in the development of holistic metal health services;
  • Development of family support and resilience programme to break the cycle of knife and gun crime;
  • Development of a culturally relevant Friends and Family Test for the community to assess the performance and delivery of public funded health and social care services;
  • Review the Public Sector Equality Duty to have specific provision on promoting and challenging discrimination against of people of African descent;
  • Equality and Human Rights Commission establishment of a race equality statutory committee with an Independent chair to monitor, review public and private sector services and policies which have a detrimental impact on the black community;
  • Funding bursaries to individuals and family members to travel to key location in the Caribbean, African, North America, Asia, Middle East and Europe as part of a process of healing and remembrance;
  • Development of research and academic fund to support more black academics and think tanks in developing research and social policy around mental health and health inequalities;
  • Establish an Emancipation Fund to support events, monuments and activities around Emancipation Day, Windrush Day and Black/African History Month;
  • Review and undertake a reclassification of the current clinical manuals around diagnosis of different forms of mental illness where people of African descent are over diagnosed;
  • Development of cultural specific support and counselling services for children and young people.

The trauma of enslavement is still ever present within the subconscious of both black and white people 400 years after the start of transatlantic slavery. It is reinforced by everyday racism and the consequences of government policy and globalisation. I guess my suggestions are radical proposals for how we can shape a new perspective on healing and unpacking our family histories to achieve equality for all by recognising the lasting legacies of those who ‘endured slavery’.


[1] The LBS Team would like to thank Patrick for this this guest blog. Patrick Vernon OBE is an Associate Fellow at Centre for the History of Medicine, Warwick University and founder of Every Generation Media  and 100 Great Black Britons.

[2] Ubuntu is a traditional Southern African philosophy which emphasises our common humanity; our connectedness and interdependence as fellow human beings. For further information see the Tutu Foundation UK’s website.

[3] At present, the Slave Registers are available for free on; it is necessary to create an account to access them.