The idea that began as a U.N. General Assembly resolution Dec. 17, 2007, titled “Commemoration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” culminated March 25 with the unveiling of “The Ark of Return,” located at the Visitors’ Entrance Plaza at U.N. headquarters in New York City.

Haitian-American architect Rodney Leon was chosen among 310 entrants from 83 nations by UNESCO and the Permanent Memorial Committee. “It pays tribute to the courage of slaves, abolitionists and unsung heroes while promoting greater recognition of the contributions made by slaves and their descendants to societies worldwide,” according to the memorial organizers.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “This poignant and powerful memorial will help us to acknowledge the collective tragedy that befell millions of people. It encourages us to consider the historical legacy of slavery, and above all it ensures that we never forget.”

Prime Minister of Jamaica Portia Simpson-Miller said, “Freedom was not gifted to us. But it was rather earned by the sweat, blood and tears of millions of our forebears on whose backs the economic foundations of the new world were built.”

The foreign minister of Jamaica, Sen. Arnold Nicholson, explained to the press in an earlier briefing, “Our countries were colonies of one European power or another. And all of us experienced the forced importation of slave labor, not to advance our own development, but rather to build and maintain the riches of others.”

Nicholson used the opportunity to refer to the efforts of the Community of Caribbean States to achieve reparations. “This issue of reparations, it is not going to come to fruition by dialogue. I don’t think so. I think it has to end up in the courts.”

The pristine white marble structure was designed by Leon, a Manhattan-based architect who also designed the African Burial Ground National Monument in lower Manhattan. “‘The Ark of Return’ is a symbolic spiritual space, an object where one can interact and pass through for acknowledgement, contemplation, meditation, reflection, healing, education and transformation,” stated Leon at the unveiling.

He acknowledged to reporters at an earlier session that his own background played a powerful role and a part in the commemoration as a Haitian-American. He said he feels in touch with Haitian liberation and the people’s struggle to be the first independent African state in the Western Hemisphere.

Leon told reporters that the aim was not just to document and remember the past but to look beyond it and more forward into the future, allowing people to experience the tragedy and to simultaneously communicate and heal.

Highlighting some of the features of the monument, he notes the triangular marble panels, inspired by the maps of the triangular trade in slaves. The maps are also reflected explicitly in the structure, with three such maps etched into the walls, so visitors are confronted by the uncomfortable truth.

Leon said he and his team felt it necessary to include drawings of actual slave ships, depicting cross-sections of vessels and showing their systematic organization, to pack in as much “human cargo” as possible.

Finally, one of the most important elements of the memorial is that of a deliberately androgynous human sculpture, called “the trinity figure,” representing the human spirit and the spirit of the men, women and children of African descent. The figure’s leg, hand and face are made from Black Zimbabwean granite.

“It has an outstretched hand that’s meant to kind of reach out to people that are coming in,” Leon said.

The third element is a triangular waterfall, created by the tears that flow from the face of the “trinity statue” into two triangular reflecting pools. Leon says this element, located outside of the memorial, looks ahead to the future.

To date, India is the leading contributor with $260,000, among more than 85 contributing nations and individuals. “India’s contribution is a visible manifestation of our continued commitment to the objective of ending racial discrimination,” stated Indian Ambassador to the U.N. Asoke Mukerji.

The U.S. contribution, according to the office of California Rep. Barbara Lee, a member of the Appropriations and Budget committees, subcommittee on state and foreign operations and the Steering and Policy Committee, is $100,000, accompanied by $200,000 from private sources.

“I am pleased that my request for a one-time U.S. contribution for the construction and dedication of the memorial was supported by my colleagues. African-Americans who bear the legacy of slavery deserve to see their government participating in this powerful and important memorial,” Lee said in a statement. “We cannot hide from our history, no matter how painful it may be. The U.N. Slavery Memorial confronts our painful past and compels us to acknowledge the continued legacy of racism rooted in our nation.”