‘Unspeakable Things Unspoken:’ Transatlantic Slavery – A Public Conversation (12-13 October 2016, Nottingham Contemporary)


By Dr Katie Donnington, University of Nottingham

The bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 opened up a space to consider the place of slavery in the narrative of British history. The commemorations, dubbed by some as ‘Wilberfest’, were not without controversy with some historians and community activists critical of the focus on a self-congratulatory narrative of abolition.

Since then there has been a notable shift in focus from Britain as emancipator to the much longer history of participation and profit. In 2013 the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project launched its open access database, for the first time drawing attention to the economic processes of slavery compensation and the multiple ways in which the system left its imprint on British society. The following year CARICOM announced its ten point plan for reparations, a move that sparked a huge public response in Britain and across Europe. In Britain, activism and academia have combined in the student-led movements that have demanded universities engage in a process of coming to terms with the(ir) imperial past, including links to slavery. Continued public interest in the history of slavery was demonstrated in the viewing figures for the 2015 BBC documentary Britain’s Forgotten Slave-owners – 1.6 million people tuned in to watch each episode. Slavery and its legacies remain with us, not least in the persistent forms of racialised thinking that continue to shape the social realities of the present.

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I recently won a British Academy Engagement Award. These awards are designed to encourage public engagement with new interdisciplinary academic research, with a particular focus on working with Early Career Researchers. My project ‘Re-presenting slavery: Making a public usable past’ is building a network of historians who work on transatlantic slavery and who are committed to finding ways to make their research more accessible. Part of this work involves organizing a series of events that look at different aspects of public history and the ways in which slavery has been figured within them. We will begin with a conference on 12th-13th October 2016 at the Nottingham Contemporary ‘Unspeakable things unspoken’: Transatlantic slavery – a public conversation. The event will consider how academic history has shaped public perceptions of slavery and how public debate has challenged and inspired scholarship. It will give critical attention to the ways in which slavery and colonialism has shaped both our public and academic history institutions. Given the increasing emphasis on ‘impact’ within university research agendas the event will offer new possibilities for building relationships across academic and public history. Public history will be conceived of in its broadest sense and speakers and attendees will come from among museum and heritage professionals, artists, community historians, activists, academics, poets, performers, educators and most importantly – the public!

I want the event to be have open and inclusive atmosphere that bridges the gap between academic and public history. To try and foster this spirit the conference will shift away from the traditional academic format of panellists and audience questions. Instead dialogues between the invited speakers will run for 20 minutes with 10 minutes of audience questions. We will then move to dialogues around the tables based on the content of the presentation themes. This is to encourage peer to peer conversation – everyone’s opinions and perceptions are valid and should be open to discussion not just our speakers! Speakers and chairs will be asked to move around the room and engage with the tables.

The evening event will look at the ways in which slavery and its legacies have been explored and memorialised through poetry and performance. The focus of this event will be the work of renowned Jamaican dub-poet Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze. Breeze’s poetry gives voice to a wide range of disenfranchised people as well as personal, social, political and historical issues. Her work has engaged with themes of slavery and colonialism by linking the personal to the political. Breeze will in conversation with literary scholar Abigail Ward, together they will consider the tangled relationship between slavery, gender, sexuality, class and race, with a particular focus on the experiences of Caribbean women. The evening will also feature performances by local and regional artists Sure Shot aka Michael Brome, Panya Banjoko and Marcus Joseph.

The second day of the event will be a half day workshop focused on local history activism in Nottingham and the East Midlands. Participants will be encouraged to come to the workshop with ideas for building new or expanding existing public history projects that consider the history of slavery and its legacies. The meeting will act as a forum for brokering partnerships – local stakeholders from museums, archives, art galleries, Nottingham Trent University, the University of Nottingham, Midlands3Cities, community groups, creative practitioners, the council and relevant funding bodies will be invited to come.

There will be a further three workshops across England over the course of the next year. Each one will explore a different aspect of slavery’s public history – within the art world, museums and education. My hope is that this will eventually lead to tangible public engagement projects that move academic work outside of the university so that everyone can have access to the new knowledge that is being generated through this research.

To book your free place at this event please visit our Eventbrite page.

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