Bonsoir et bienvenue à tous. I hope that soon I will be able to say a little bit more than that in French!
What a great commemoration for the 20th anniversary of the Slave Route Project.
I’d like to start with a moment of silence for all of the current and former victims of slavery.
[Moment of silence.]
I am honored to co-host this event with Director-General Bokova and am eager to work with her and her team, and my fellow UNESCO Permanent Delegates, on the important issues facing this organization. I look forward to getting to know you and exchanging ideas, and collaborating on initiatives.
When you entered the room tonight, you walked through a dark opening – intended to be evocative of the “Door of No Return.” Although the term has been most closely associated with Gorée Island in Senegal — now a World Heritage Site — the “Door of No Return” is emblematic of the more than 20 million men, women and children throughout Africa who were forced into slavery. Imagine with me for a moment what it must have been like to be:
— Lassoed with a rope and dragged like an animal away from your family.
— Chained to other victims with wooden yokes for the long march to the coast.
— Beaten, chained and crammed like cattle into dank, overcrowded, disease-ridden ships – like the one depicted behind me.
— Yelled and spat at in an unintelligible language.
— Stripped of your clothes, your homeland, your dignity, even your own name.
— Condemned to a life of backbreaking labor in the cotton fields of the United States, the sugar cane fields of the Caribbean, the coffee plantations of Brazil, and the indentured servitude of the Middle East.
— And, of course, for women and girls everywhere, constant fear — fear of nightfall and approaching footsteps by the door, fear of retaliation by a jealous wife, fear, always fear, of another rape.
As you heard today, the booming slave trade that flourished until the 19th century was driven by an insatiable demand for labor to fuel a thriving global trading market. But as the Slave Route Project has so aptly revealed, slavery was practiced in some parts of Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas long before the first Western slave boats landed on African shores.
And in fact, even with the Transatlantic Slave Route, one of the illuminating contributions of the project has been exposing the uncomfortable fact that Africans themselves conspired with Westerners to foster and perpetuate slavery. Greed and cruelty had no geographic, racial or cultural boundaries, but was a carefully orchestrated and coordinated global phenomenon.
Ships from Europe carried goods such as cloth, guns, ironware, beads and alcohol to the Western and Central Africa coasts where they were exchanged for men, women and children who had been captured by slave traders, bought from African chiefs, or imprisoned by the victors of a neighboring war.
After their boats were filled, the ships would travel across the Atlantic, known as the Middle Passage, to the Americas, where they would sell Africans who had survived the brutal journey to plantation owners in the United States, South America and the Caribbean. The ships then returned to Europe with sugar, coffee, tobacco, rice, gold and silver, and cotton, which had been produced by slave labor – only to begin the triangular journey anew. Similar bartering occurred along the Indian Ocean from East Africa to India and the Middle East.
Evil. Yes. Morally deplorable – of course. But for me, in the context of UNESCO, the big takeaway is how interwoven, how precisely designed, and inter-connected, the global slave trade was. Ironically, the slave route shows us what nations and communities can accomplish together when they set their sights on something, and then jointly pursue it in unison with other partners with relentless, single-minded determination.
Look around at the maps hung by the buffet tables, displaying the elaborate connections between countries. U.S. and the Caribbean; West Africa to Brazil, Zanzibar to India; Timbuktu to Europe and the Middle East. Taste the rum punch of the Caribbean, the al kefta of Mali, the hummus and taboulleh of Lebanon, and my favorite, the peach cobbler of the Southern United States. Feel the cotton and sugar cane originally produced on slave plantations. Look around at the pictures of men, women and children in captivity, and think about what it took — what it really took — to conscript over 20 million people into slavery — and keep them there.
Then think about how hard the opponents of slavery had to work — some against their own economic interests — to dismantle such a deeply entrenched and profitable system.
It will take that kind of intensity and determination and international cooperation — galvanized this time for good — to solve many of the worlds’ problems, from illiteracy to ethnic conflict to climate change.
UNESCO, with its wide membership and broad mandate in the fields of education, science and culture, has a unique platform to tackle these and other difficult challenges but we will only make significant advances if we are every bit as committed, driven, unified and relentless as our predecessors. It is perhaps unusual to draw lessons from the masterminds of slavery. But imagine if we could export job training or books or sound environmental practices around the world, like they did with cotton, coffee and slaves.
In my tradition, the Book of Genesis teaches that important lessons can come out of great darkness. It speaks of the Patriarch Joseph whose own brothers robbed him of his most valuable possession and sold him into slavery, where his wise counsel to the Pharaoh to store up crops to avoid a famine led him to become second in command. Upon seeing his destitute brothers who sought food and help from the Pharaoh, he wept and told them: “Even though you planned evil against me, God planned good to come out of it … to keep many people alive.”
We have the opportunity to learn from, and redeem, the past. Although one kind of slavery has been eradicated, another is flourishing. An estimated 21 to 30 million people are currently living in bondage, victims of forced labor or sex trafficking.
In this modern slave route, men and boys are forced to work in mines, fields, construction projects and cannabis farms for no or subhuman wages. Boys sent by their parents for religious study are forced to spend their waking hours begging for food and money for their so-called religious instructors. Women and young girls lured by the promise of work as domestic employees at home and in foreign countries are required to surrender their passports until they “pay back” their sponsors with prostitution, a debt that is somehow never extinguished.
As with the slave trade of the past, the modern scourge of human trafficking requires the complicity of nations in order to flourish, and it will require the commitment of nations to eradicate it. UNESCO can play an important part. Alongside the slave route project’s important work documenting and depicting historical slavery, work is needed to educate the public about the scope of human trafficking today and what can be done to prevent it, including applying pressure on governments, companies and individuals not to turn a blind eye to how laborers are treated and paid, and how young girls are exploited.
UNESCO can also work to educate families and young people about the many ways in which human traffickers deceive and ensnare victims. And, of course, the more focused work UNESCO can bring to ending illiteracy for women and girls and promoting sustainable development through education, the more likely those vulnerable to trafficking will be empowered to pursue other options.
Let’s commit ourselves to working — fervently, intentionally, collectively — to once again eradicate a global slave trade. Just like the termination of the transatlantic slave route, countering human trafficking will not be easy. But let’s see how much progress a determined, multinational body working purposefully together can make, shall we?
David, please come on up.
To close out of this portion of the reception, I’ve asked my husband to sing a song in commemoration of the slave route project that has become known as the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
We thought it was particularly fitting in light of UNESCO’s educational mandate because it was first performed as a poem by 500 school children as part of a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. As he sings, we’re going to roll a brief slide show that reminds us of the connections between the historical and modern slave trades. After David concludes, we’ll go directly into a performance by Grammy artist Marcus Miller.
Let’s think and work creatively together to figure out how we can all do more to honor and commemorate the past and to free the men, women, and children who are still enslaved, so that every voice can sing.
Thank you so much for coming.