Chronicling the Global Slave Trade
When researching the history of the New England slave trade, students enrolled in a RISD course Dialogue Across the Diaspora made a perplexing discovery. As they poured through stacks of records housed in Rhode Island’s oldest libraries and trusted archives, they found a gaping void of information chronicling this monumental piece of post-colonial American history.
“We know that most of Rhode Island's [earliest] economic growth was fueled by the slave trade,” explains Josette Souza, a Brown student in the class taught by Professor Jonathan Highfield, a longtime faculty member in RISD’s Literary Arts and Studies department. “But there isn’t much tangible evidence to support this fact. It’s almost like some of the history was erased.”
This is just one facet of the collaborative course charging students to research the African-American slave trade and the subsequent resistance movements that rose up across North America, the greater Caribbean, Haiti and South Africa. In addition to researching the slaves’ horrific struggles, students have been reading about systemic cycles of oppression that continue in many parts of the world today and have visited Bristol and Newport – seaside communities in Rhode Island that directly benefited from the slave trade.
While visiting historical societies, they learned that blacksmiths profited from the sale of metal shackles and textile manufacturers earned money from the sale of “negro cloth,” a special fabric used to dress slaves. “Even though the industry touched all parts of the Northeast economy, slaves weren’t included in many of the social customs like they were in the South,” notes Nicole Buchanan SC 15.
Interestingly, students have found that much of that history is kept hush-hush. When visiting mansions originally built for sea captains who trafficked in slaves, they noticed that there are no external placards offering a detailed explanation of the original owners of the property. “Talking about racial inequality isn’t exactly dinner table conversation,” notes Souza. “I think [the secrecy] is because people are ashamed and don’t want to address their own privilege. But in order to make sure those legacies aren’t perpetuated, we have to break through that fear.”
Students in Highfield’s course have also been collaborating with Anthony Bogues, a professor of Africana Studies who teaches at Brown University. They’re now using the web to communicate with students and faculty at Cape Town University in South Africa. Discussions have touched upon the connection between the slave trade and colonization and its impact on the contemporary world.
To bring light to their studies, the groups are now curating Ships of Bondage, a powerful exhibition that’s slated to open at Cape Town’s Slave Lodge Museum in late November. It will explain how the slave trade profoundly impacted the cultural landscapes and economies of Rhode Island, Haiti and South Africa. Over Thanksgiving break, students will travel to South Africa’s capital to install the exhibition and learn more about the vibrant country.
“This show will be the first of its kind,” notes Jordan Seaberry 14 PT. “We’re going to be drawing parallels between these three geopolitical sites with vastly different landscapes. But when you look closely, there are so many fascinating connections.”
For Seaberry, the course is loosely related to his volunteer work at Direct Action for Right and Equality (DARE), a resource that helps with reports of police abuses in Rhode Island prisons (which house a disproportionate number of minorities). The senior recently lobbied to pass legislation that will make it illegal for Rhode Island employers to ask applicants if they’ve been convicted of a felony.
“I grew up on the south side of Chicago, so conversations about racial inequality and discrimination have always been buzzing in the background,” notes Seaberry. “It’s been enlightening to read historical accounts that document the slave trade in detail. We can only make change if we understand where we come from.”
Souza echoes Seaberry’s thoughts. “It’s important to learn about this history for basic educational purposes,” she says. “But we also need to look closely at the societal and economic drivers that caused these events so that we can understand why this systematic oppression is still happening. Then we can create a just world.”
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