Americans love to celebrate. We commemorate historic events (Thanksgiving, Independence Day) and people (Presidents Day, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day). But few are aware of the significance of January 1, 2008: the 200th Anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the United States. We tend to remember the end of the institution of slavery as one result of the Civil War. African Americans have commemorated Juneteenth, a celebration of the day, on June 19, 1865, when slaves in Texas were finally told about the Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years after it was implemented. But America has all but ignored the date that marks the end of the slave trade.
This past year, Great Britain spent the equivalent of $40 million to remember their 200-year old abolition law from 1807. They educated students, invested in museums and commemorative services, and considered the legacy of slavery and the impact it still has today. They taught anew the heroic actions of historic figures like Wilberforce, Newton, Equiano, and Clarkson, who led England’s fight to end their evil commerce in human flesh.
Here in the United States we are doing precious little to mark the occasion of our equivalent historical watershed event. To my knowledge, the only official action toward commemorating the date, a bill to establish a commission to “ensure a suitable national observance of the bicentennial anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade” (H.R. 3432), was introduced in August 2007, passed in the House (October) and the Senate (December 19 ), but with all funding eliminated. It remains to be seen whether this remains an ineffectual symbolic gesture or if funding will be forthcoming in 2008, obviously after the January 1 anniversary. Beyond that, the only government-sponsored event planned, of which I'm aware, is a public symposium hosted by the National Archives on January 10.
One can reasonably argue that the law to end the slave trade was less than effective. Enforcement efforts were often half-hearted; those who continued trading illegally did so with vigor, particularly prior to 1820 when the penalty for conviction of slave trading became death. (Even this change to the law was largely toothless, as the penalty was only applied once, during the Civil War). Yet the 1808 law was a turning point. It helped energize the abolition movement and provided government affirmation that slave trading was not only immoral but criminal.
I'm descended from the most successful slave-trading family in U.S. history. My distant cousin, Katrina Browne, documented the journey ten members of our family took to confront our family's legacy. We retraced our ancestors’ two-centuries-old steps through the Triangle Trade from New England, to Ghana, to Cuba and back. The resulting film, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah in late January.
My family benefited directly from the slave trade. But the reality is that I am no closer to this legacy—or perhaps better stated, I am equally as close to this legacy—as any person who is descended from white people living in this country or in Europe two hundred years ago. Most white people, whether in Philadelphia or Liverpool, gave little thought to the black people who labored to provide the tobacco for their pipe or the cotton for their clothing.
Slavery was the fuel that drove the entire industrial revolution and gave white people a sense of privilege, place, and entitlement that persists today. When we examine significant social indicators—wealth, infant mortality rates, the likelihood of imprisonment, homicide rates, access to housing, health care, employment, higher education, and so on—we find that blacks fall on the negative side of the dividing line. This is a legacy of slavery, and it is systemic.
And slavery isn’t merely a fact of history. Today, in countries around the world, including the United States, an estimated 27 million people live enslaved. I’m not speaking metaphorically of the millions of people who live in slave-like conditions, working for low wages. I refer to people who are bought and sold, whose lives are owned by other people and who are forced to work as prostitutes, farm workers, mine laborers, and in manufacturing plants producing goods that we consume. We are just as close, and just as responsible, as our ancestors, who innocently stirred a spoonful of sugar into their tea without thinking about who provided the labor to produce that sugar in the West Indies.
Encourage your senator to support funding for H.R. 3432. Take steps in your community to commemorate the anniversary of abolition on January 1. Contribute to the United States National Slavery Museum. Significant institutions such as this will lead our nation toward better understanding of all our history, which is key to knowing how we arrived where we are today. Join the efforts of The Amazing Change Campaign. Commit yourself to be aware of the source, and implications, of your purchases and investments. Overcoming the legacy of slavery and ending modern-day slavery will take diligence and commitment. It will take me and you.
About the Author
Thomas Norman DeWolf is featured in the Emmy-nominated documentary Traces of the Trade, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and on the acclaimed PBS series POV. DeWolf speaks regularly about healing from the legacy of slavery and racism at colleges, conferences, and workshops throughout the United States. He is the author of Inheriting the Trade and co-author of Gather at the Table. Follow him on Twitter at @TomDeWolf.