By Sylviane A. Diouf, Director, Lapidus Center.
December 15, 2014.
The United Nations has proclaimed 2015-2024 the International Decade for People of African Descent. In the next ten years, the international community will be tasked with combating racism and discrimination, ensuring the protection of the human rights of people African descent and contributing toward tangible improvements in their lives.
Fittingly, the Schomburg Center was step one on the path to the official launch of the Decade, whose slogan is “People of African Descent: Recognition, Justice and Development”. The Decade is placed under the leadership of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and on December 9, ambassadors, UN dignitaries, students, and others, gathered in the Langston Hughes atrium for a pre-event to Human Rights Day and to the official takeoff of the International Decade, both happening the following day.
Deputy UN Secretary General Jan Eliasson stressed the important role of the Center, which “has been a great partner with us in the UN for a long time, organizing exhibits on ending racial discrimination and remembering also the shame of the transatlantic slave trade…. It’s a towering presence, filled with art and information about African Americans, the African diaspora and African experiences.” Indeed, as the international community is about to enter the first year of the International Decade, the Schomburg Center will celebrate its 9th decade of preserving and interpreting the global black experience.
Schomburg Director Khalil Gibran Muhammad reminded the audience it was standing upon the ashes of Langston Hughes, “the most translated American poet in history”, a widely-traveled man, an inspiration as he “spoke about the struggle for democracy and human dignity.” Today’s struggles were made starkly salient by the continued need for demonstrations “around the right to life free of state-sanctioned violence.” A sentiment echoed by Jan Eliasson, who stated, “I need not remind anyone in this room of the anguished, but vitally important, public debate we are witnessing these days, in this country, on violent police action and racial profiling.”
On December 10th, during the official launch of the Decade—which referenced the event at the Schomburg Center—all the remarks at the UN headquarters underlined the centrality of the transatlantic slave trade, slavery, and colonialism not only to the development of the modern world but also to continued racism, discrimination, and violence against people of African descent. As I listened to the speakers, I thought of the illuminating conversation, “Slavery, Universities, Inner Cities” that took place at the Center just a day earlier. Davarian Baldwin of Trinity College and Craig S. Wilder of MIT discussed how these crimes against humanity were intimately linked to the foundation, in every sense of the term, of American universities, and how this shameful heritage expresses itself today in some of the woes inner cities face.
Two other Schomburg initiatives around the slave trade and slavery came to my mind: the digital exhibitions In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience and The Abolition of the Slave Trade: The Forgotten Story. When Sir Hilary Beckles, Pro Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies and keynote speaker at the UN, spoke of the African Diaspora in Asia and the Middle East, I thought of a third exhibition, The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World. It covers this too-often neglected part of the black world. A black world that is at the center of Africana Age: African and African Diasporan Transformations in the 20th Century. Here is a transcript of the speech, and the audio recording.
The recently established Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery plays a major role in raising public consciousness and historical literacy. Its primary mission is to generate and disseminate scholarly knowledge—through fellowships, exhibitions, and public programs—on the slave trade, slavery, and anti-slavery pertaining to the Atlantic World. A gift by Sid Lapidus of 400 rare books makes the Center home to one of the world’s premier collections of slavery material.
For decades the Schomburg Center has been involved in major international initiatives concerning Africa and the African Diaspora and as it celebrates the International Decade for People of African Descent, it continues its daily work of offering a diversity of public programs and exhibitions, and of collecting, preserving, interpreting, and making accessible materials pertaining to the global black experience from yesterday to today.