By: Nick Draper
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in two conferences in the US, Slavery, Compensation, Reparations at Wellesley (24th October) and Visualising Slavery & British Culture in the Eighteenth Century at Yale (7th-8th November).
The Wellesley event was organised through the Africana Studies department and was primarily student-led, incorporating sessions with small groups of Selwyn Cudjoe’s undergraduates as well as the formal presentations of the public conference itself. I spoke alongside Eric Graham of Edinburgh and Will Pettigrew of Kent in linked papers on British slavery, while Kwadwo Osei-Nyame of SOAS and John Torpey of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at CUNY presented contrasting points of view on reparations for the African diaspora and for African-Americans. The resulting free-for-all was chaired by Louis Lee Sing, the immediately past Mayor of Port of Spain, Trinidad: he brought home the difference in quality and inclusiveness made by a chairman with political skills, in contrast to the customary performance of this role by the most senior academic at hand. Clearly the campaign for reparations for slavery has a long history in all four continents, since the era of slavery itself, but the political salience of the issue has fluctuated and its geographic centre has shifted over time. The sense I took away both from Wellesley and from a couple of truly off-hand comments at Yale was that in the US, where the reparations discussion was centred in the 1990s and early 2000s, the issue has become much less salient in the past decade, despite the continuing efforts of campaigners. By contrast, the CARICOM initiative has brought reparations for slavery formally onto the table for the first time in Europe and to an extent in West Africa, posing a challenge currently not only to European governments but also to the pre-existing reparations movements in the diaspora in Europe.
The Yale conference was organised at the Yale Center for British Art by the YCBA and the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance & Abolition, and marked the opening of the Figures of Empire: slavery and portraiture in 18th century Atlantic Britain exhibition at the YCBA, curated by two PhD candidates, Meredith Gamer and Esther Chadwick, together with Cyra Levenson of the YCBA. I was privileged to speak alongside Saidiya Hartman of Columbia and Roxann Wheeler of Ohio State in a panel on ‘Slavery and the Archive’. The conference was recorded and will, I understand, shortly be available in its entirety online, so I won’t try to summarise the content of the six panels and 18 presentations here. The two over-arching themes appeared to me to be: (1) the question of method, i.e. how can different types of history (cultural, political, economic, social, ‘institutional’) be deployed in combination rather than in competition to aid the recovery of the past in the context of slavery, and what role can the ‘imagined archive’ play in that process; and (2) the extent to which the structures of museums and universities themselves continue to reproduce the same power-relations that gave rise to slavery (it was contended) in the first place. This second issue is a difficult one: members of the audience pushed back on the implied conflation of expertise and elitism, but also sensed the force of the argument (and were perhaps cautious in responding to it publicly).
Both conferences underlined the resource base of the elite US universities but also the intensity of engagement by the undergraduate and postgraduate bodies in grasping the opportunities that such a resource base offers them. I’m grateful to the organisers of both for the chance to present on the LBS project to audiences we would not ordinarily reach. In combination, the two allowed me to meet academic and other professional colleagues (rather perversely, from Britain as well as from the US) who have already provided information and suggestions for the project and with whom in some cases there is the basis for fruitful formal and concrete collaboration in future.