Lives of Enslaved Women Honored in UN Symposium

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Though countless African women and their descendants were enslaved, exploited, and oppressed in the United States and other countries, their individual names and stories are for the most part absent from historical records and narratives.

On Oct. 5, in collaboration with the United Nations Remember Slavery Programme, Fordham hosted a moderated discussion of scholars, writers, and historians to honor and commemorate the lives of these enslaved black women.

The event, titled “Truth: Women, Creativity, and Memory of Slavery,” also examined the ways in which contemporary women artists address historical absences and give a voice to the unheard.

Opening the discussion before a capacity audience at the Fordham School of Law, Kimberly Mann, Chief of Education Outreach at the UN Department of Public Information, noted that women throughout the African diaspora used art “to express, endure, survive and liberate both themselves and their people.”

Yuko Miki, PhD, assistant professor of history at Fordham, explained that women’s resistance to slavery is often overlooked, however, as historical narratives focus on larger, more violent uprisings led by men.

“I would also like to recognize that women’s resistance often happens in much more subtle, everyday forms,” she said.

These forms were visible in a series of archival photographs presented by Deborah Willis, a photographer and the chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at New York University.

Through images of enslaved women, runaway slaves, teachers, washerwomen and other workers, as well as famous figures such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, Willis showed that women were not merely the objects of photography, but played a role in constructing their own identities for the camera.

Nicole Fleetwood, associate professor of American studies at Rutgers University, explored a similar agency expressed in photographs of incarcerated black women today, who use the medium “as a mode of self-representation” and a way “to claim interior lives,” she said.

Puerto Rican writer Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro discussed the inspiration for her own book, Negras: Stories of Puerto Rican Slave Women” (2012).

“I decided that the visibility of slave women needs to be reclaimed by means of fiction. I took in hand the memory of all black women to make them visible and to bring out their contributions to humankind,” she said.

Other panelists included Gabriela Salgado, an African and Latin-American contemporary art curator based in London, who focused on the work of Brazilian artist Rosana Paulino, and Iyunolu Osagie, associate professor of English at Pennsylvania State University.

Osagie summed up the evening’s sentiments concisely when she claimed, “Women have always been there. If you look for them you will find them.”

“Truth: Women, Creativity, and Memory of Slavery” was sponsored by the Latin American and Latino Studies Institute, Department of African & African-American Studies, the School of Professional and Continuing Studies, the Department of History, and Fordham’s theatre program.

Nina Heidig

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