Thursday, February 21, 2013

February: Black History Month

As most of us know, February is Black History Month. Here are few resources that I've come across this month that might be of interest.

One of the best movies about the abolition of the slave trade is Amazing Grace which was released in 2006. Directed by Michael Apted, it tells the remarkable story of William Wilberforce, a young British parliamentarian who worked relentlessly to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. British slave ships brought Africans to the West Indies to be bought and sold as property. Wilberforce was working against cultural biases which viewed the dark-skinned people of Africa as less intelligent, less modest, less virtuous - in short, less human than people with white skin. In addition to this, many British parliamentarians and wealthy persons owned plantations or had a stake in the slave trade.  Ioan Gruffudd gives a stellar performance as Wilberforce while excellent supporting performances are given by Benedict Cumberbatch as William Pitt and Michael Gambon as Sir Charles Fox.

The title of the film, Amazing Grace, comes of course, from the hymn of the same name, written by John Newton, a slave ship captain who converted to Christianity and whom eventually became an Anglican priest. His conversion to abolitionist came about gradually. In 1788 he published his Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade which described the terrible conditions on board slave ships traveling to the Americas. Wilberforce was eventually successful with the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 which abolished the slave trade but did not free those already enslaved. Sadly, that did not happened until 1833.

In America, where the slave trade flourished, and eventually led to civil war, it took well over 200 years to abolish slavery and to establish equality for African Americans. In the 1930's, during the Great Depression, men and women were hired to record the stories of slaves, those who were still alive some 70 years after Emancipation and could who could recall life as a slave. Often these people had been slaves as children or adolescents. The project, called the Federal Writer's Project, was part of an initiative to write about American history. Former slaves were interviewed from all Southern states as well as many other states such as Rhode Island, North and South Carolina, Texas and Alabama.

The Slave Narratives can be found on the Library of Congress website. These narratives contain 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery. There are also hundreds of archived photographs.An interesting discussion of the limitations of the Slave Narratives can be found here. Please explore this site in detail as it has much information on the Slave Narratives.

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