Gretchen Kell, UC Berkeley
The 400th anniversary of the forced arrival of enslaved Africans in the English colonies will be observed at UC Berkeley, not only this month — in August 1619, the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia by ship — but during the entire 2019-2020 school year, starting with a daylong symposium Friday, Aug. 30.
That symposium — “400 Years of Resistance to Slavery and Injustice” — will include panel discussions by prominent national experts, including UC Berkeley faculty, on the history and lasting consequences of slavery and on African Americans’ extraordinary contributions to American life and the struggle for justice.
The Aug. 30 talks will drill into issues including mass incarceration, the civil rights movement, new black social justice movements and racial reparations. Dance, poetry and song also will be part of the International House event.
UC Berkeley’s commemoration is in the spirit of “The 400 Years of African American History Commission Act,” federal legislation signed last year. It acknowledged the impact of slavery in the United States and called for a national commission to commemorate the anniversary of the forced arrival of Africans in the English colonies in 1619.
About 20 enslaved Africans first arrived in America by ship at Point Comfort, a coastal port in Virginia, and were sold to the British colonists. They were among more than 12.5 million other captives taken from Africa to be sold in the Americas during the centuries-long transatlantic slave trade that began in the 1500s.
“It’s important to show that the campus values the history and experiences of African Americans, and that there is a direct line between slavery, reconstruction and contemporary social and economic problems,” says Denise Herd, professor of public health, who is coordinating UC Berkeley’s events as associate director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. “We also want to signal that UC Berkeley is open to looking at and having engaged conversations on these issues, and that we have professors at work on them.”
Last May, Chancellor Carol Christ announced a major initiative to “acknowledge, study and discuss the meaning and lasting impact of a despicable chapter in our nation’s history.” Other sponsors of the initiative are the African American studies and history departments, the African American Student Development Center and the Black Staff and Faculty Organization.
Waldo Martin, a Berkeley history professor on the planning committee, says he hopes the new school year’s events will “engage the university community and the Berkeley community and stimulate conversations that have to happen — about equity and diversity and reparations.
“The history of slavery in this country is a central and profound theme and experience that’s shaped the country. You can’t really understand this country without understanding slavery.”
A new campus website details the talks, film showings and artistic performances scheduled for the fall and spring semesters.
Some of the nation’s top scholars on topics related to slavery and its afterlife will be traveling to UC Berkeley. They include these fall semester guests:
- Ibram X Kendi, a best-selling author and historian who is founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research & Policy Center. He will speak on Sept. 12 about his new book, “How to be an Anti-Racist.”
- Monica White, a University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor of environmental justice. She will speak on Sept. 26 about how people of color are developing sustainable community food systems as a way to fight food insecurity and build healthy communities, and how this activity is within the historical legacy of African American farmers who fought to acquire and stay on the land. She is currently working on her first book, “Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, 1880-2010.”
- UC Berkeley alumna Ruha Benjamin, an associate professor of African American studies at Princeton University, who studies how emerging technologies — from apps to algorithms — can reinforce white supremacy and discrimination. Her Oct. 17 presentation will introduce the concept of “the New Jim Code.” Benjamin’s books include “Race After Technology.” She founded Princeton’s Just Data Lab.
- Judith Carney, professor of geography at UCLA and a UC Berkeley alumna, who wrote “Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas,” a book about the critical role Africans played in creating the rice production system in South Carolina. She will speak on Oct. 23.
“These are some of the best possible people doing all kinds of work on slavery,” said Martin. “And we trained some of these excellent young scholars” as students at UC Berkeley.
Tina Sacks, an assistant professor of social welfare at UC Berkeley, said she hopes the year-long observance will show prospective students of color that the campus is a place of important scholarship on issues with roots “in the history of exclusion. It’s heartening that UC Berkeley is taking this on.”
A film series also will launch, on Sept. 11, with the 2016 documentary “Gina’s Journey: The Search for William Grimes.” The film, to be shown in the Morrison Library, is based on former UC Berkeley employee Regina Mason’s quest to trace the steps of Grimes, her ancestor, who traveled along the Underground Railroad to freedom and wrote the nation’s first fugitive slave narrative.
The next film screening will be “The Long Shadow,” on Oct. 10. This documentary, at the campus’s Banatao Auditorium, is by two filmmakers, haunted by their families’ slave-owning pasts, who captured untold stories about white privilege in America and how prejudice and ignorance cast a long shadow on our celebrated democracy.