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Atlantic Slavery and the Making of the Modern World

Wenner-Gren Symposium #158
October 12-18, 2018

Even today, Atlantic slavery and the slave trade continue to haunt our present and to impact our everyday lives. The persistence of racist ideology and its contestations, economic disparities within and between nation states and across continents, human trafficking and massive migratory movements in world populations today are stark reminders of global processes unleashed by capitalist and imperial expansions concomitant with the Atlantic economy. While the institution of slavery and the trade in people were important components in other major global trade networks (e.g., Roman empire, trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean commerce, etc.), the historical proximity of Atlantic slavery, its strong racial and racist foundations, its scale and its long-term effects make it profoundly relevant to the modern experience. Its enduring legacies and multiple reverberations on various domains of modern life are sensitive topics of tremendous political and popular concern in various regions of the globe, and particularly in Africa, the Americas, and Europe. 

There is a massive body of scholarly (anthropologists, historians, sociologists, economic historians, art and architectural historians, preservationists, landscape and urban planners and various other heritage professionals, etc.) and non-scholarly production (e.g., visual artists, storytellers, musicians, performance artists, etc.) on Atlantic slavery and its afterlives. Over the past decades, however, the strong resonance of histories of slavery in local and global politics, the challenges they pose to modern governance and policing, the multiplication and multivocality of actors, as well as the racial polarization of these debates have collectively rendered the discipline of anthropology ever more relevant. Politically engaged anthropologists have dismantled Eurocentric assumptions about racial hierarchies and stigmatization, gender and class biases, and essentialist views on cultural identity. Many anthropological explorations of Atlantic slavery today are self-reflective and highlight the capacity of the discipline to reinvent itself by examining its paradigms, theories, and methods and by challenging accepted models of thought, as well as commonplace understandings of cultural, racial, ethnic and even socioeconomic differences.  Anthropology has taken a stand against many power-driven assumptions to be more attentive to subaltern voices worldwide, particularly on issues related to slavery and its aftermath in the global North as well as in the global South.   

Building on such momentum and on the large corpus of existing literature, this symposium will gather pioneering academic and public scholars working from a wide range of perspectives. The symposium will not only evaluate existing literatures and practice, it will also provide a unique opportunity to generate and explore new ideas for future directions. We hope to build conversations among several disciplines of evidence, contexts and frameworks to challenge pre-existing approaches, and in the process identify new approaches in both theory and practices that benefit both scholarship and our globalized communities on the ground.  Participants from different disciplinary homes, cultural backgrounds, and research traditions in Africa, the Americas and Europe are invited to reflect on the different geographies of power and cultural economies of Atlantic slavery and their enduring legacies in the 21st century. Because we want these conversations to be among people who are both strangers to each other and bring different types of new knowledge to the table, we hope that we serve as a strong voice to building bridges within anthropology and across disciplines.  We are intentionally challenging intellectual traditions within and across the field of anthropology and offer models of what anthropology has to become in order to have greater impact in policy as well as public culture and action. Our goal is to provoke productive, cross-pollinating conversations across geographical, methodological and theoretical boundaries, to revisit, reactivate, and redirect debates on Atlantic slavery for the 21st century and beyond.  

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