UN Confronts Global Legacy of Transatlantic Slave Trade


Bryan Stevenson gave the keynote lecture last week at the United Nations and addressed the global implications of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the obligations of nations and cultural institutions to do more to confront this painful history. The convening was titled “Beyond Colonial Histories” and signaled a major effort by the UN on slavery.

The lecture and panel discussion concluded a series of events sponsored by a United Nations program established by the General Assembly in 2006 to remember and confront the legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery.

The focus of this year’s remembrance is fighting slavery’s legacy of racism through education.

“The police violence that we see today, the bigotry that we see today, the presumption that someone in a Starbucks is doing something wrong when they’re just drinking their coffee—all of these things are manifestations of a narrative struggle that I believe we have to engage,” Bryan Stevenson said in an interview with UN News. “And that’s where culture, and art, and museums, and every institution in the world can play a role.”

Between 1501 and 1867, nearly 13 million African people were kidnapped, forced onto European and American ships, and trafficked across the Atlantic Ocean to be enslaved, abused, and forever separated from their homes, families, and cultures.

In our recent report and at our Legacy Museum, EJI examines the global trafficking of African people and documents the lasting impacts on Europe, Africa, the Americans, and Asia of this global phenomenon.

Mr. Stevenson underscored how critical it is for the United Nations, as a global institution, to be “a leader in highlighting the need for reckoning, for repair, for conversation, for dialogue around the multiple ways that the legacy of slavery continues to burden us today.”

“The tragedy of the transatlantic slave trade is that people were disconnected from their communities, from their tribes, from their families, from their homes. And that connection was so violent that it’s hard to reconnect,” Mr. Stevenson told the UN News.

Responding to the disparity between those who profited and those who were beaten and tormented is the obligation of any just society.

Bryan Stevenson

“And so, there has to be a more global response to how we recover, how we repair the damage, how we heal from the multiple ways in which wealth and power was built in certain places, and poverty and destruction and violence was experienced in other places,” he continued.

It’s especially encouraging that conversations about the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its legacy are ongoing at the UN and in academic spaces across the globe, Mr. Stevenson said.

“That museums that have long been silent about this history are now being intentional in addressing these histories and realities with care and thought, and centering the voices of people who were enslaved, is for me a remarkable step forward.”

“And that gives me even more hope that we can get to a different place,” he said.

The purpose of our Legacy Museum, Mr. Stevenson explained, is to create a world where the children of our children are no longer burdened by the legacy of slavery.

“That is our aspiration. And I will carry that with me until we achieve that end. And I’m going to encourage everyone else to have that same hope.”