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Episode 127: Slavery as History and Memory with 2023 Reckford Lecturer Ana Lucia Araujo

April 10, 2023 | Kristen Chavez

Recorded in February 2023, Director Patricia Parker talks with 2023 Reckford Lecture speaker and historian Ana Lucia Araujo about her research.

Watch the 2023 Reckford Lecture on the IAH website.

Learn more about the Universities Studying Slavery conference that was held in March 2023.



Kristen Chavez: Welcome to the Institute, a podcast and lives and works of Fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In this episode, IAH Director Patricia Parker speaks with Howard University professor and American social and cultural historian, Ana Lucia Araujo.

Dr. Araujo delivered the 29th annual Mary Stephens Reckford Memorial Lecture in European Studies on February 23, 2023. Her work explores the history of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade and their present-day legacies, including the long history of demands of reparations for slavery and colonialism. The 2023 Reckford Lecture, titled “Slavery as History and Memory” explored these themes. Before the lecture, Dr. Araujo sits down with Director Parker for this conversation.

Patricia Parker: We’re so happy to welcome you to Chapel Hill for the 29th Reckford Lecture. Thank you, Dr. Araujo, for being our speaker for this lecture. In just a couple of hours, you will be delivering that lecture and will be here in Hyde Hall for your remarks. So thank you for taking some time to have this discussion for our podcast prior to that, and thank you for the work that you do.

Ana Lucia Araujo: Thank you for having me, Dr. Parker.

PP: So before we dive in to your lecture, I want to take a step back and ask you to talk a bit about your research more broadly. What led you to focus on the transatlantic slave trade?

AA: It is a great question and a question that of course, over time, I have been asking myself, what did lead me to do this work? Mainly because I was born and raised in Brazil, that is the country that during the era of the Atlantic slave trade, was deeply shaped by Africa, by the African continent, because the country brought — Portugal and Brazil brought enslaved Africans, then almost 6 million enslaved Africans during the era of the Atlantic slave trade. And it’s still today, Brazil is the country with the largest Black population in the Western Hemisphere.

But when I was raised, and when I was educated in Brazil, when I went to school, this story it was totally evacuated, then. And Black people in Black culture and the history and the legacies of slavery were certainly visible everywhere, but there was no recognition of these atrocities and there was also no recognition of the importance of Africa in building Brazil. Then it is when I left Brazil in 1999 and I started studying first travel accounts of European travelers who went to Brazil in the 19th century. And at that time, as I was doing it, I was being trained as an art historian. And I finished that Ph.D. program in art history. And most of what I did in that Ph.D. was to look at how enslaved people and also indigenous populations, how they were represented by those white Europeans who went to Brazil in the 19th century.

But at the end of the day, my interest from that work, because it became clear that it was this long history of slavery in Brazil and this long history of the African presence in Brazil. And this led me to look at how slavery was memorialized in Brazil, and in West Africa, in what is present-day Republic of Benin. Then I went to do field work and archival research in the Republic of Benin, and came back also to Brazil to do this work. Then it was part of my own distance, the distance that I took from Brazil when I moved to Canada at the end of the past century, that led me to decide to work on this topic.

PP: So fascinating, the way that your personal history and even your academic intellectual history, in terms of being an art historian, all of that comes together in your work. I know that for your for the Reckford Lecture today, you will be focusing on slavery as history and memory, which is a riff on your book, Slavery in the Age of Memory: Engaging the Past. And so, can you talk about that intersection of history and memory and how those two concepts are both related and are distinct?

AA: Yes, we used to refer to history and memory, sometimes interchangeable, they are interchangeable concepts, sometimes we try to draw a line to separate these two concepts. But at the end of the day, either history and memory, they are forms of discourse that allows us to engage the past, to engage what happened in the past. The difference is, we can establish some elements that are different.

When you are, when memory engages the past, this is an engagement that is happening in the present, then everything about memory is happening now. Then the past is an excuse, we can say that way. But what matters is what is going on in the in the present. History is not very different. But history has that ambition of addressing the past, while eliminating the component that is about the present. Then history that has this ambition, of being objective, of trying to see things from a neutral point of view, then when we’re talking about academic history.

But at the end of the day like memory, because memory is always about a point of view, is always about lived experiences. But at the end of the day, when you are writing history, we are doing that in the present. Then the two dimensions, they are always connected. One has this ambition of being objective. And we as historians, we try to be objective, but this of course, remains an illusion. This is why this dialogue, I think it is it is important. And I will be discussing more about this tonight.

PP: Well, it’s really, I think it’s really a wonderful frame for so many conversations, right to make those connections between history and memory, and then also the distinctions. And I love that you, as you talk about memory necessarily being in the present, right? And that’s something that makes it distinct. So, one topic that is very present, is reparations. And I know you’ve researched and written about the long history of reparations. So it’s in the present and also on the past. So can you share more about? What do you think people may know, or maybe misunderstand about reparations and its history?

AA: Yes. The way reparations entered my work, it was exactly at the time when I was doing research in the Republic of Benin — then, this was about 2005. And I was looking at the time at how groups, NGOs, governments, institutions, how they were trying to create initiatives to memorialize slavery in the public space through the creation of monuments, festivals, memorials. And there was a lot of debates at the time, even in the newspapers in Republic of Benin, about yes, we want monuments, it’s important to remember about slavery. But what about reparations? Whereas monuments and memorials and perhaps memorialization is a form of symbolic reparation, every time that the topic of financial or material reparations came into the debate, then it became very contentious.

And at that time, there was this idea, every time that someone would refer to reparations, they would refer to the conference, the UN conference of Durban in 2001. And I started telling myself, how it’s possible that calls for reparation just started in 2001? And how it’s possible that historians are not looking at this history because most of those who wrote about — they are economists, political scientists, sociologists, people in who also are legal scholars, but not historians.

Then I accumulated a lot of material about those debates. And I decided that it was necessary, perhaps, to put this history together from the first calls that we know, because there are certainly other calls that I do not cover, of course, in my work, but that started, indeed, when slavery was still there in 18th century.

And these calls for reparations they started not last week, not with Ta-Nehisi Coates, not with Durban conference, but it started indeed more than 200 years ago. And this is something that I think that people do not know. Because today, people they say a lot, “Oh, yeah, but this happened a long time ago, when today, the victims are no longer alive, the perpetrators are no longer alive.” But indeed, when they were alive, when the victims of slavery, those were enslaved since the beginning of this, the Atlantic slave trade to the Americas started. When they were still alive, they were asking, they are calling for reparations and their demands have been dismissed since then.

PP: I love the way that you make this argument that when history, when historians are involved in the some of these questions, it sort of fills out part of the picture, as you say, the economists and the political scientists and so forth may have part of the picture. But having historians and to think about this long history of the victims of enslavement, raising this question of reparations is really, really interesting and useful I think as we start to continue with the analysis of this. I want to say at this point that, you know, this is such an important time for you to be on our campus this semester, where the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is absolutely wrestling and reckoning with the history of slavery at this place.

And I think part of what your work does is to bring that larger, broader context of a place, I think, and then connecting across in your case, and transnationally and across geographies. But we are hosting the international consortium, Universities Studying Slavery, that conference there spring conference will be on our campus in March. We’re excited that your lecture and then a couple of other lectures that we’ve had on campus have are really providing this education to the publics, to faculty, to students. And speaking of that, what do you see as the role of universities and places of higher education in being a part of these discussions about history and memory and reckoning and with race and racial slavery?

AA: I think that all universities, either in the United States or in other countries where in slavery existed, and where slavery was very important, the role of the universities is, on the one hand to conduct research about these past atrocities, and to seek the truth about these atrocities. And also, in addition to conduct research, the other dimension is the teaching of this history.

And, of course, that either in the United States or even in countries like Brazil, about 20 years ago, there was a legislation that passed to make mandatory the teaching of African history and Afro Brazilian culture, is still something that is not fully implemented. In the United States, we do not have that, even though history of Africa has been taught here and in our universities for far longer than then Brazil.

But I think that the importance of this kind of initiative of this group of studies, Universities Studying Slavery is to not only look at the involvement of these institutions with the institution of slavery, because at the end of the day, all institutions in these slave societies – everybody had a connection then, with slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. But to recognize this long history, to create mechanisms to research to continue researching this history, and I believe that even if we have this impression that, ‘oh, everything was said, everything was done, there are so many books, there are so many studies,’ there is a lot to be done, there is still a lot of archives to be explored, then this kind of initiative should be done — but also programs to teach this history.

And this is the university is very important, because it is a universal effort for reform also that we train teachers. People, then will go to the schools, and who will teach this history. And we need that not only in one city, one university or one state, but we need to do this all over the country. And not only the United States, I know that for people who may be bothered about this, the emphasis on slavery in the United States, in other countries also it is problematic. Countries like France, like Brazil and also the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain are also fighting because of the need of recognizing and teaching this this history. But I think that the United States is the country that still leads these initiatives, and I think that this kind of conference is very, it’s very important to create a solid and permanent measures that we’ll make this history taught to our youth and our children and the teachers that we want to train.

PP: It’s so interesting that you say that, I believe I heard you say that in all of these discourses across the world, who may be thinking about teaching history and complicated histories, if we want to call it that, that the United States should be leading, is seen as the leader of teaching this history? I just want to make sure first that I got that right, that you said that.

AA: I would say, I don’t think that the United States should lead. But in fact, here, this country with all the problems that we have in this country, this country is still the country where we discuss the most about is this legacy and this history. Through movies, through documentary films, the historiography of slavery in this country is stronger than anywhere else. The English language is the language that makes the works circulate. And I love Brazil and I want to center Brazil, in my work, but very few people, they read Portuguese. Then, for people to know about history of slavery in Brazil, a book needs to be published in the United States and in English.

And here is the country also that even if you take in terms of the number of museums that tell, even if it’s in imperfectly, that tell the history of slavery, most of the institutions are here in the United States. For example, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. It’s a recent institution. But that exhibition’s slavery and freedom is bigger, much bigger, several times bigger than the entire International Slavery Museum in Liverpool. That is not in London, that is in Liverpool. And there are things that are already happening here. But I just think that they should continue happening and continue developing and not to do opposite. We should not stop talking about this history and teaching this history and researching this history. It’s the opposite.

PP: That is a fascinating piece of information. And it provides context to my next question. Before I get to that question, I want to add to what you just laid out there in terms of the resources that we have in the United States in terms of studying slavery. I would add to that, the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill libraries. It is one of the largest and foremost collection on the institution of slavery in the world. And we in fact, do attract people from all over the world to study that. So what you just laid out for us, then, is really this interesting contrast to this current public discourse about the teaching of African American History. So I wonder what you make of that, given that this is the place — I mean, you’ve just made this really wonderfully compelling argument of the pervasiveness of this history. Not just as it’s taught now our schools because probably isn’t taught as well and as comprehensively as it should be currently in our schools, but the fact that it’s so available in all of these other communicative contexts: film, art, museums, collections. What do you make of this public discourse about whether or not that African American history should be taught? And what is the role of humanities and history scholars in that discourse?

AA: Of course, that I think that this history must be taught and I believe should be mandatory. But I am in the United States, and it’s not a country that is centralized that any measure like this could be mandatory. But I think that because it’s decentralized as well, there are many other channels through which this history circulates and is taught. Even if we take the example of memory of enslaved people and their stories, this memory was preserved because it was passed, is about collective memory that was passed down from generation to generation.

There is no way to erase this memory. From times to times there are politicians, governments, groups that try to impose these views. But there is always a new wave that comes to overthrow the old one. And what we’re seeing now it’s much more about battles for the memory of slavery, than a memory that is in black and white, and groups that politicize this history, this past in order to tell a story that that evacuates all the atrocities that were committed. But on the other hand, there are many other initiatives that come to make a counterpoint. And I think that the records — when you are referring to the history, and these, I think that is one of the important points that of history itself, when you refer to the records that we have here at university, in this in this collection, the records are not disappearing. The records are there to be studied and to be explored.

And the role of us in the humanities, or historians, artists, whatever you are doing, is to use what is there for us in order to tell this story. And this story can be told in multiple ways: that is not only in the classroom — it is in the classroom as well, I’m not saying that we should not and we should be not fighting to have this history taught in the classrooms. But it goes much beyond that. And I think that these are ways, perhaps for us to see other, to see alternatives in order to make this story visible and taught and also disseminated.

PP: Well, you certainly are doing your share of that work. And we’re very grateful for the work that you’re doing to raise the arguments, to provide these tools for us to think about these histories and how it should be taught. So thank you for that. And you’re working on some new, two new manuscripts that are that you’re working on: one with Cambridge University Press and the other with Chicago. Tell us about those projects.

AA: Yes, the project with Chicago is titled, Humans in Shackles: An Atlantic a History of Slavery. That is a book that is a general history of slavery in the Americas that has three main focus. The focus is on the one hand to give the due importance, the due place to Africa in this history. Usually when you are teaching, when you are writing histories of slavery in the Americas, everything starts in the Americas and we just consider how Africa continued playing a role during the entire era of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery. This is one point.

The second point is the importance of Brazil, the centrality of Brazil as the country that brought to its shores the largest number of Africans during the era of the Atlantic slave trade. And the other point is women. Enslaved women because even though in general, there were two enslaved men who were brought to the Americas for one woman, enslaved women, were still those who through their wombs, they created new enslaved people. And also they performed all kinds of activities that usually are not at all highlighted in this history, that usually focused on this broad economic picture. This is a book for general audiences focusing on these three themes or three pillars.

And then the other book is more of what we call — and I don’t like this term — but what we call microhistory. This is a book that focus on the importance of material culture during the era of the Atlantic slave trade. Then I follow indeed one object that was fabricated in France, and was given as a gift by slave traders in the 18th century, to an African agent in west central Africa at the time on the Loango Coast. And that object was to please that agent who was an intermediary in the Atlantic slave trade and in the trade in enslaved people. But the object was stolen from there, and ended up in the country that is present day Republic of Benin that is Dahomey, the Kingdom of Dahomey that was the theme of this recent movie with Viola Davis, The Woman King.

And this object ended up there, in a place that is far away from where it was brought initially. And from there, it was looted by the French at the end of the 19th century. Then this object was looted as part of the colonial wars. And the object is a way for me to connect to the importance of the material culture during the era of the Atlantic slave trade, and also to show the connections between the Atlantic slave trade and the rise of European colonialism in Africa. And it’s a story, indeed.

PP: Fascinating. I’m looking forward to those projects being made available. I will make two comments, one for each. The first is, in your first project: so important to tell the history of women in the era of enslavement and the lives of women, and those histories figure into my own work on leadership. My first book was about African American women’s leadership and sort of this historical legacy of resistance in African American women’s history that is still in the present.

I mean, as I interviewed, the senior executive women, they talked about these traditions. And then when I went into, you know, to the archives, and also in literature that talk about these histories, it helps me make this case for this tradition of resistance and history that still is around community building and community engagement, which is where my work focuses.

PP: And then this fascinating study about that connects all of these different geographies by following one object, and as you say, the stories that come. And I think that this becomes, you know, connecting back to the last question around the importance of teaching these histories. It’s really is the, you know, the stories. Having these stories and the humanizing work that stories do, of people who were enslaved, but also, people in the present.

I mean, I know that it’s very meaningful to me personally, that I inherited from my mother, her grandfather’s Bible. And her grandfather was enslaved, and she cared for him for toward the end of his life, he died in the early 1930s in his 80s. And she had his Bible and he read his Bible, he read the paper, he also read to other members of the community, because not everyone was literate, but he was. And, having that history, just personal history from my mother, and knowing that there are other stories that are untold that maybe have been lost, that your work is helping to connect us to that, to those history. So again, I want to thank you for your work.

PP: So we’ll end the podcast, our conversation today with two questions that we ask for each of our guests, especially people who are scholars in the academy. So the first one is, what has been your favorite undergraduate or graduate course to teach? And why?

AA: I would say that, over the past five or six years I have been teaching the undergraduate course that is Introduction to African Diaspora. We have two levels of this course, one that goes up to the 19th century and other one that goes up to the 20th century. I teach the first one. And I’ve been teaching this for a couple of years. At Howard, it’s mandatory and most of our students, they have, at least at the college, they need to take this course.

I love to teach this course and is it’s much this course that shaped this book that I am doing with Chicago. That is a course that forces us to think the history of Black people in general in the Americas, as starting in Africa and as coming back to Africa, as circulating in Africa. Then at the same time, of course, we studied the history of the Atlantic slave trade in this course. But the course is about how this African tradition, how Africa as a homeland, how Africa as a continent that has a very long history remains alive in the Black communities. And this is a course that I have been working a lot and has been very important for my work, and that I love to teach.

PP: I would love to take that course actually. Sounds fascinating. And finally, what is a book that has changed your life? You can answer it in that way, or just what is a book that you’d like for us to know that about, that’s important to you?

AA: Well, there are many books, there are many books. But I think that one book that currently is a book that comes to mind as a book that was important for me, and is important to me is Beloved by Toni Morrison. Because of all the things that you are talking about, then it also because then the not only the issue of women, how women resisted slavery, how the problem of motherhood, that is something that was imposed, and at the same time, would become a way for enslaved women to resist.

This is a book that was transformative. I wrote many years ago, an article about enslaved women in my home state in Brazil, who committed infanticide during the era, during the early 19th century. And committing infanticide, because they were in a situation that they could not take anymore, and was a way to respond to their oppression. And this is something that happened in the south of Brazil. But at the same time, that book by Toni Morrison was influential.

And then, of course, that book has several siblings, because many other people wrote about this, this topics then, in the United States, my colleague at Howard, Nikki Taylor. Marcela Echeverri also wrote about similar stories in Colombia. And the book was, it was this kind of a book that brought me to navigate and to discover things that perhaps were there, but that I was not aware of.

PP: Thank you. Thank you so much for sharing that. Well, thank you, I know that you are going to share so much more in your lecture. So we’re excited about that and welcome others to to watch the recording. Those of you who are listening to this podcast, the recording of Dr. Araujo’s lecture will be on our website. So please be sure to catch that. Thank you again.

AA: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me, and looking forward to the lecture. It was a pleasure.

KC: Thank you for listening to the Institute Podcast. You can learn more about Dr. Araujo’s work and watch a recording of the Reckford Lecture at our website, There you can also learn more about our upcoming events, programs, grants and leadership opportunities for the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty or read stories about our fellows. You can subscribe to the Institute on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. Thanks for joining us.

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