Grant to support Brown-led global oral history project on slavery’s legacy

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Grant to support Brown-led global oral history project on slavery’s legacy
Grant to support Brown-led global oral history project on slavery’s legacy


Reshaping how stories are collected and curated

Bogues said the project originated in 2020 and 2021, when partner scholars led by Ibrahima Thiaw at the Cultural Engineering and Anthropology Research Unit of Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, captured more than 20 hours of video interview footage with 27 people who live between Saint-Louis and the Senegal River Valley, once a central node in the transatlantic slave trade. At the end of the 19th century, French colonial authorities established villages of liberté, or “freedom villages,” for formerly enslaved Africans, and they relied on the villages ’inhabitants for cheap or even unpaid labor — effectively keeping Africans in positions of subordination even after they were technically freed from slavery. After developing relationships and cultivating trust with current residents of those former “freedom villages,” Senegalese scholars traveled there from Dakar and recorded their stories of ancestral migration to the area, the region’s evolving spiritual and cultural practices, and how French colonization changed the physical landscape .

Throughout the rest of 2022, scholarships at CSSJ and at partner institutions will conduct interviews in several other countries where the legacies of racial slavery still reverberate. They will visit the wine region near Cape Town, South Africa, where vineyards once paid their workers in wine instead of currency, leading to systemic alcohol-related health issues that persist today. In the UK port city of Liverpool, they will speak to descendants of West Africans who arrived there in the late 18th century, when the bustling area was Britain’s main slave-trading port. Researchers based in Rio de Janeiro will speak to Black residents of Brazil, the landing place for over half of all Africans who crossed the Atlantic in the prime years of the slave trade; two centuries later, millions of Afro-Brazilians live in poverty and comprise two thirds of the country’s incarcerated population.

Scholars who are affiliated with the CSSJ will also convene conversations in New England, where Indigenous and Native peoples and members of African American organizations will share some of their ancestors’ forgotten stories.

“The legacies of slavery are not just structural – they are also personal,” Bogues said. “Hearing an individual’s story about living in precarity or navigating the carceral state can humanize systemic inequality better than a statistic can. Together with our international partners, we hope to broaden everyone’s understanding of the histories and the aftermaths of racial slavery and colonialism on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. ”

Once interviews are complete, the one-of-a-kind collection will be digitized and housed at Brown’s John Hay Library, where it will be accessible to researchers, students and members of the public everywhere. Importantly, each partner institution will also retain an archive of the conversations conducted in their respective locales – making them easily accessible to nearby scholars and members of the public who do not have internet access or cannot travel to Brown. The interviews will also remain the intellectual property of the various communities, and the interviewees will reserve the right to remove their interviews from the archive at any time.

Amanda Strauss, associate University librarian for special collections, said she believes the collection of global conversations will not only inform high-impact scholarship on the repercussions of racial slavery, but will also reshape the way that stories are collected and curated.

“This isn’t just an oral history project – it’s also a different kind of curatorial practice,” Strauss said. “These oral histories highlight the knowledge and expertise of individuals and reflect the way their communities keep and transmit knowledge. Facilitators are taking time to establish close relationships with interviewees, establishing a mutually beneficial relationship grounded in trust. This project is a glimpse at the future of how collection-building and scholarship can intersect in a non-extractive, equitable, thoughtful and community-focused way. ”


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