Project Summary

Slavery, Memory, Citizenship—Major Collaborative Research Initiative Program, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
January 2008

“If we do not pay attention to slavery, it is a betrayal. Others are still living in slavery, [and] we cannot deny or say it is not happening.”
—The Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of     Canada, Elmina Castle, Ghana, 29 November 2006 

The project focuses on slavery, memory and citizenship to highlight the global migrations of African peoples from the 15th century to the present, offering a comparison of historic patterns of slavery to inform current public policy on issues arising from the persistence of slavery and racism into the 21st century. The research focuses on three interrelated themes: slavery, memory, citizenship, specifically in relation to the global migrations of African peoples. The aim is to examine the historic context of trans-Atlantic slavery, which involved millions of Africans, to reflect on that experience, on its memories and impact. Such an endeavour is intended to inform our understanding of contemporary problems inhibiting the achievement of a multicultural world based on values of peace and justice. We recognize that every person’s dignity is enhanced through an appreciation of the past and present contributions of all citizens. Our approach in contemplating the interplay between history and memory requires interdisciplinary collaboration and a perspective that aims to compare the trans-Atlantic experience of slavery in the development of the Americas with that of the Islamic world.  This also includes the Mediterranean, where slavery and the African presence were also widespread, as well as the Indian Ocean world, where many enslaved people were also forced to migrate, including Africans. How do different concepts of personhood as commodification typify different practices of slavery and how does this inform our understanding of why slavery persists into the 21st century? Slavery was only criminalized in Mauretania on August 23, 2007, a decade after slaves had been legally emancipated. In Dar Fur, the tragic war of attrition reveals the ugly scars of slavery.

Why is it only now that descendants of people who had been enslaved ask for recognition and (in some instances) for reparations? Why only today are issues relating to slavery at the forefront of global concern, as abolition once was in the 18th and 19th centuries? Our research opportunity confronts the questions: In exploring how the history and legacy of slavery (especially public/cultural responses to this legacy) can inform us about contemporary slavery and racism, we want to understand why individuals are still being commoditified and why attempts to combat racism, arbitrary confinement, and social stigmatization are often thwarted? Numerous groups claiming former slave heritage have sought their public space, and sometimes they have achieved recognition through artistic production (past and present). Why is this theme of recognition and quest for identity so pervasive? Through a sustained approach both to the study of slavery and to its contemporary implications, the participating scholars are committed to producing new mechanisms of analysis and collaborative engagement that integrates both leading-edge, innovative research and is responsive to citizen concern for greater social equity and economic justice. Collaboration among the social sciences, law, fine arts, and humanities can achieve both research and social policy goals.

MCRI – Full Proposal