To commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the Transatlantic slave trade by the United States of America, New York University’s Institute of African American Affairs and Africana Studies hosted an international symposium. The symposium took

place at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and was attended by many people, including renowned poet Maya Angelou, activist Amiri Baraka and Howard Dodson, head of the Schomburg Center.

This is the second Slave Routes Conference. The first one took place in 1999 in partnership with UNESCO and was also hosted in New York. Jayne Cortez, a speaker at the symposium and co-founder of the Organization of Women Writers of Africa, stated that New York is a good place to have a conference regarding slavery because “the port of New York served as one of the primary receiving areas for the slave trade. And New York City, being an important financial center, was one of the financial centers for the slave trade.” The symposium started with song. Singer Rutha M. Harris gave a resounding and powerful performance of “Wade in the Water.” So powerful was her performance that the audience joined in. Afterwards, the crowd gave a resounding standing ovation for her bombastic, melodious voice.

Afterwards, the symposium became charged with emotion, lament and empowerment. The two people that greatly affected the mood of the symposium were Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka. The latter had a more political message, as he spoke his opinion on when slavery really happened to the importance of the Civil Rights Movement. Baraka has his own time-line for when slavery actually began. “Emancipation January 1, 1863. They say we were brought here in 1609, but we know it was actually about 1492,”said Baraka. He added that, during the Civil Rights Movement, “our leaders did not retire, they were murdered. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, they were murdered.” This alone might be why nobody has really stepped up to lead our people, said Baracka. “It’s very difficult to be as strong and as focused when they kill your leaders. People say, ‘What happened to the movement?’ They killed us! Who they didn’t kill, they locked up,” said Baraka. Baraka also had a strong political message in regards to what foreign policy sounds like to him. “The majority of the world is colored. Remember that. Always remember the majority of the world is colored. So if the a–holes of evil up in Washington D.C., talk about the Axis of Evil, we have to remember that they never stop, never stop attacking colored people,” said Baraka. And by “colored people,” Baraka was not just talking about African-Americans. He was referring to all Black people, Asians, Arabs, Latinos and other non-Caucasians. Then Baraka got to the election and Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. “If it wasn’t for Malcolm X, Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks, there wouldn’t be no Obama,” he said. Maya Angelou also stirred the whole crowd. She had more of a remembrance vibe to her speech. She discussed what it must’ve been like for people traveling on the slave ships and what it must’ve felt like for a woman to be pulled away from her man.

“Who wants to remember the men who watched their women pulled away from them? And when they themselves could not defend their women; who wants to remember how they felt?” Angelou asked. “Who wants to deal with that really?” When she said she looks back at what we Africans, as a people, went through, she added, “We’ve come so far from where we started and now we have so far to go.” In regards to the plenary session, “I think that a meeting like this, an examination like this is so profound, so serious that you cannot use the general words, we cannot use the common language to talk about it.” Even after all that has been done, Angelou called on the audience to remember that we are where we are now because of the endurance and determination of a previous generation. “Sometimes we become so hot in our wish for a revolution that we forget to thank the ancestors for what they went through,” said Angelou. Howard Dodson also spoke, but he also took the time out to reassure people that the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture was not going anywhere, despite the rampant rumors. “There is no plan, intention that I’m aware of to move the Schomburg anywhere.” Dodson also addressed the intention of the Slave Routes symposium, which “is to break the silence around the teaching and talking about and learning about and knowing about the slave trade and slave route and what our people did to bring themselves from that stage of history to where we are today.” Referring to the conference, Michael Gomez, a history professor at NYU and speaker, declared, “The session at the Schomburg went extremely well. The air was charged with electricity; the audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. It was a tremendous honor to be in the presence of such luminaries. I would love to do it again.”