BLACK HISTORY MATTERS

Peggy King Jorde is a Cultural Projects Consultant combining more than 30 years of experience in architecture and historic preservation projects in New York City and beyond. In 1990, King Jorde was thrust into the limelight as a pivotal figure in the fight to protect a 17th century African Burial Ground for enslaved and free blacks that was rediscovered during the construction of a federal office building.

When Peggy visited the island in February 2018, she was astounded by the size and significance of the African Burial Grounds in Rupert’s Valley, which unambiguously places the island at the centre of the Middle Passage, tethering the British Empire to the institution of slavery in the US and the Caribbean. Peggy was then quoted saying, ‘this history is tied to my history, so I am here to bear witness…You cannot erase people, and you cannot erase who they are and the contributions that they make.’

With the situation that has arisen in the US and UK surrounding the global campaign of ‘Black Lives Matter’, the Saint Helena Equality and Human Rights Commission reached out to Peggy for advice on how the events unfolding internationally are just as pertinent to Saint Helena’s unrecognized Black and Saint Helenian history as opposed to its celebrated colonial history. 

BLACK HISTORY MATTERS

P. King Jorde

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” John Donne, London 1623

Never truer words were spoken, and which is why St. Helena and I share a bond, even as an African American.

I have spent the better part of my career in the public and communities defending histories marginalized by race and creating cultural spaces for them. I am a product of the American south, a descendant of enslaved people, where cotton was King, and vestiges of plantation culture still linger. Where during my childhood, racist terrorism, segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement shaped my life. And so it is no surprise that I stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement.

In the wake of the racialized murder of George Floyd, the global community has responded with a bold willingness to demand justice, pull back the veil of white privilege and confront racial disparities that oppress and diminish the dignity of black lives, past and present.  In the case of Great Britain, the demand for change has turned to home. Following cues from the U.S., Bristol’s removal of symbols of slavery and racial oppression has taken center stage sparking critical conversations around integrity, truth-telling, and history.

 I thought about my visit to St. Helena a few years ago. Nothing struck me more than the realization that I was on the ground where the British East India Company had headquartered in the cradle of the international slave trade. I was keenly aware that I was a descendant of survivors of the Middle Passage, standing at an intersection of legalized human bondage and the Atlantic economy. If I wanted tangible reminders that offered a meaningful opportunity for truth and reconciliation surrounding the trans-Atlantic slave trade, I found it in St. Helena. Still, I wanted to see something of my history profoundly represented in the landscape.

 And I thought about Napoleon Bonaparte, St. Helena’s most celebrated figure who was not without his contributions to the legacy of slavery, oppression, and terrorism, which shaped the lives of Africans on the continent and in the colonies. Bonaparte dared to reinstate the brutal slave-based plantation society in France’s most profitable island colony, San Domingue. Still, he had not anticipated defeat by the black resistance under Toussaint Louverture’s leadership.  Slave owners turned refugees fled the island for the U.S. to join other plantation colonies stateside. Meanwhile, Haiti, the new republic, set the standard for black resistance and the price of dignity and freedom.  Nearly 100 years later, the Zulu people who had sought nothing less against the British suffered imprisonment in St. Helena for their acts of resistance against unfair treatment.

Finally, I thought about the “Liberated” African Burial Ground and the extraordinary opportunity to honor the humanity of the African children, women, and men who rest there, not to mention the 325 souls who have yet to be laid to rest. Some say slavery never ended, it has only evolved. Which is why the burial ground is an important cultural heritage site with the power to move us all to say “never again.” Yet the threat looms large for this sacred place as much needed support falls desperately short of considerable financial and moral commitment by governing authorities. In consideration of the enormous wealth of colonial powers built on the exploitation of enslaved people and their descendants, a world-class monument is deserving, at the very least.

What will it take?

The exploits of privilege have rendered history written and rewritten so as not to acknowledge uncomfortable facts. Some say, “change never comes when it is comfortable and convenient, and equal treatment can’t prevail without a willingness to challenge the system.”

The practice of silence has gone far too long, and it’s an excellent time to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.  Be a cultural custodian. Defend the sites of conscience that uphold the humanity of black lives, culture, and history. Commit to confronting systemic racism and the legacy of slavery & the Middle Passage. Never fear striking down the injustices and omissions affecting all humanity along the way.

We are all a piece of the continent and a part of the main….…. BE THE CHANGE!

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