A daylong symposium was held at UC Berkeley on Friday recognizing the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves brought to the English colonies and what would later become the United States. The symposium is part of a campuswide initiative announced by Chancellor Carol Christ in May that aims to “honor and celebrate” Black “extraordinary … contributions” to the country.
The symposium is the first of many other events planned through this initiative and is organized with the help of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, the African American studies and history departments, the African American Student Development Center and the Black Staff & Faculty Organization. This comes after Congress passed the 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act in 2018, which established a commission to help develop activities that acknowledge the impact of slavery and discriminatory laws in the United States.
Led by Associate Director of the Haas Institute Denise Herd, the symposium welcomed 15 speakers as well as four group performances aimed towards improving the campus’ commitment to inclusion and diversity, according to a statement from Christ. The symposium was split into three panels that shed light on different aspects of the history of slavery and the Black struggle in the United States.
“It’s a great honor to be here today to mark one of the most important moments on our campus and in our world,” Herd said during the event. “We come together today to reckon with this tragic past but also to acknowledge the tremendous strengths and accomplishments of those who fought against slavery and continue to fight for justice today.”
Herd’s opening was followed by a rendition of the Black national anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” sung by the director of the University Gospel Chorus Doniel Mark Wilson. The crowd of more than 100 people followed along as the song lyrics were displayed during the presentation.
The first panel, entitled “Slave, Memory, Afterlife,” dealt with issues pertaining to the history of slavery as told and taught through a singular lens that did not account for the Black perspective. The panelists chosen for this section spoke about starting a conversation centered on the history of slavery and its aftermath.
“White women constructed preposterously positive stories of slavery that erased the kinds of trauma, separation and pain that emerged in formerly enslaved people’s lost friends and information wanted ads,” associate professor of history Stephanie Jones-Rogers said during the panel. “When these Southern female authors wrote about enslaved people there was no brutality, no privation, no agony, no loss, no tears, no sweat and no blood.”
In between panels, the Latanya Tigner and the Dimensions Dance Theater performed a Harriet Tubman tribute where the company danced to the voices of both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. The second panel, entitled “Second Afterlife,” was then introduced, dealing with the relationship between the criminal justice system and Black people.
The third panel, titled “Power and Resistance,” centered around the history of Black resistance to slavery and racial prejudice in the past 400 years and the present. Following this, campus graduate student Ree Botts and campus senior Reequanza McBride performed their own spoken word poetry about the Black struggle.
“This question about our history is really about our future; it’s still the question of who belongs, and we see a resurgence of people who say if you’re not white, if you’re not male, if you’re not Christian, if you’re not heterosexual or cis, if you speak with an accent, if you’re an immigrant, if you’re a Muslim, and it goes on saying you don’t belong,” said keynote speaker John A. Powell. “(Belonging is) about both recognizing our past and recognizing our present, but more important participating and creating that future where we all belong.”