SLAVERY AND OUR ROOTS

An Invitation to Dialog
Aggie Lane

“Black Child” by Philip Thomas Coke Tilyard, ca. 1815-1825. Courtesy of the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, NY

Today, we as a nation may be patting ourselves on the back, congratulating ourselves for rising above racism and electing Barack Obama as our 44th president. Talk show host Tavis Smiley warns that it is dangerous for us to think this historic election will solve the social injustice rooted in our slave past. It will take serious work to roll back 500 years of racism and build a fair nation. To change how we act, we must look at defenses that may sound like this:
           “It’s over; let’s not focus on its pain and shame; it’s stigmatizing.”
          “They should get over it. It was 150 years ago.”
           “My people came in the 1920s and so I had nothing to do with it.”
           “Slavery, Jim Crow, segregation were Southern things; we were abolitionists, part of the underground railroad.”
           “Slavery doesn’t exist today. Why talk about it?”
           “My ancestors were penniless and discriminated against when they came but that didn’t hold them back.”
           “Why do blacks hate us?”

And it goes on and on, with many of the conversations in segregated groups, people talking in safety, many of us mis- and uninformed.

So how do we, as a diverse community, address slavery, its legacy and its persistent presence today? The powerful and privileged write history and provide the news, usually skewing it to exonerate, to assuage guilt and to avoid uncomfortable truths. How do white Northerners acknowledge how much they profited from slavery? How do we all begin to flesh out the story of slavery rooted in the North as well the South, of black abolitionism, of black revolt? How do we address not only sex slavery in Asia today but human trafficking in Central New York? Families also avoid the painful, the embarrassing or the unprofitable. Over time family and national myths crystallize based on half-truths, often birthed by omission.

In late February and March, with the help of our co-sponsors – Le Moyne College, the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, SU’s African American Studies Program, the Community Folk Art Center and Syracuse Model Neighborhood Facility, Inc. – Beyond Boundaries and the Cultural Resources Council will present “Slavery and Our Roots: A Community Dialog.” This rich offering of 11 events and facilitated community discussions will address the hidden and the distorted, helping us to collectively think through what keeps us from achieving social justice, both locally and globally. “Slavery and Our Roots” is a call to explore subjects festering beneath the surface of our everyday lives. As we listen to hitherto hidden stories or uncover inconvenient truths, we can better grasp our roots – who we are today and where we need to go.

This Community Dialog will happen at various venues and will consist of opening and closing events that bracket three mini-series, each dedicated to an aspect of slavery. All events are open to the public. And, except for the closing celebration, are free.

For full event details, see inserted flyer or  www.beyondboundariescny.org or call Aggie, 315-478-4571.

Radical Black Abolitionism
Our Dialog will open with a lecture by author and Colgate University Professor Graham Hodges. “David Ruggles and Radical Black Abolitionism in New York” uncovers the work of a courageous black journalist and abolitionist (1810-1849) whom historians left out of our textbooks. 

Slavery Today
This mini-series will examine current human trafficking on three levels – global, national and local. The first event is a dialog on Patricia McCormick’s book Sold. This poetic novel focuses on a Nepalese girl bought by a Calcutta brothel. It is based on the author’s interviews with rescued Nepalese victims.  (The Onondaga County Library has copies.) The second event is the feature-length film “Trade” with actor Kevin Kline and actress Alicja Bachleda-Curus. It addresses sex-trafficking across the US-Mexican border and features a 13 year-old Mexican girl kidnapped and sold into the US as a “sex slave.” The mini-series concludes with a panel of experts talking about their work locally against human trafficking. This program offers an opportunity for us to understand the vulnerabilities that foster this predatory activity and learn how we might prevent or hinder this hideous practice.

Northern Slavery and Racism
“Northern Slavery and Racism” is a series of short films followed by discussions. The first film, “Unearthing the Slave Trade,” documents the struggle to save New York City’s African Burial Ground. In 1991 during the construction of New York City’s Federal Building, excavation exposed the burial remains of this colonial cemetery. Local activist Aduke Branch will lead the discussion sharing her involvement in the movement to stop the bulldozers and honor the graves of her people and their history.

The second event, the documentary, “Traces of the Trade,” follows present-day DeWolfe family members as they uncover the roots of their family’s wealth and status. Starting in Bristol, R.I., they trace their family involvement in slavery. They journey “the triangle” – from the US, across the Atlantic to Ghana, then to Cuba and back home again. Guy Swenson, a local DeWolfe descendant, will encourage us to look into our family secrets that often hide Northern complicity in US Slavery. And finally, we will watch “Teach Our Children,” a collage of documentary footage, showing Northern inner city poverty and oppression, the 1971 Attica prison uprising and the ensuing brutal state assault. SUNY Oneonta history professor William Walker will lead us in discussion about the social conditions that keep so many people of color “locked away.”

Slavery’s Legacy
This series will examine how US slavery, although outlawed nearly 150 years ago, taints our society today. Its legacy cripples and often cuts short many African American lives. The first discussion, “Race, Class & the Creation of Power and Privilege in the 20th Century,” exposes how the government and our attitudes created white suburbs and black ghettos. SU African American Studies Professor Herb Ruffin will use a short film clip and computer mapping in his presentation.  It will be a great opportunity to discuss the inequities between well-off Onondaga County townships and impoverished Syracuse city neighborhoods.

The second event will explore Le Moyne Professor Douglas Egerton’s book chapter “Suspicion Only: Racism in the Early Republic.” It analyzes the racist theories embedded in the “founding fathers’” writings, ideas that are alive and well today. (See online book review by Ed Kinane)

And finally, we will view images from the Fenimore Art Museum exhibit “Through the Eyes of Others, African Americans and Identity in American Art.” Exhibit curator Professor Gretchen Sorin of SUNY Oneonta will show us how art influences how we see each other. (The chapter cited above will be available for free and the exhibit catalog for sale at the opening lecture. The chapter is also available at www.beyondboundariescny.org)


The Series Closing: Exploring and Celebrating Who We Are
Our closing celebration will honor the lives and culture of African Americans in Syracuse. The evening will be full of photo memories, stories, song, and dance, sweetened by desserts in the Southern tradition.

This Community Dialog will be a synergy. It builds on the efforts of many local groups working for healing and consciousness-raising. It also grows out of Beyond Boundaries’ mission to encourage cross-cultural understanding and self-awareness. We work together to build the “beloved community” with lasting and just relationships across cultural and class boundaries. We hope you will join us for some part of the Dialog. Let’s keep going and let’s not turn back.


Aggie is the co-coordinator of Beyond Boundaries, a local grassroots group founded in 1993.