3 Lessons From NYC's New Memorial to Slavery

This post has been written as part of Let’s Go’s partnership with the United Nations Outreach Division.

 Smile for the camera? maybe save the selfie stick and the goofy grin for the picturesque Long Island city skyline in the background. The memorial is gorgeous, but there’s a time and a place for everything.

Smile for the camera? maybe save the selfie stick and the goofy grin for the picturesque Long Island city skyline in the background. The memorial is gorgeous, but there’s a time and a place for everything.

Head to the United Nations Plaza in midtown Manhattan to see the Ark of Return, a permanent memorial to honor the victims of slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. After the United Nations General Assembly agreed to erect the memorial in 2007, they, with UNESCO, held a design contest. Haitian American architect Rodney Leon won with his design for the Ark, whose three inscriptions (listed below) challenge visitors to grapple with one of American history’s greatest tragedies.

1. Acknowledge the tragedy

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It’s impossible to look at the memorial without being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of triangles, which represent the system of Triangle Trade, spurred by American and European demands for raw materials from the Americas (including the West Indies). The trade involved sending people from West Africa to the Americas (this route is called the Middle Passage). where they harvested the raw materials under exploitative, extreme, and inhumane conditions. The materials then sent to Europe, where they became manufactured goods, which were then sent to Africa largely in exchange for more enslaved people. A map inside the memorial also documents the system, while the white marble represents mourning and the reflecting pools encourage visitors to meditate on what they have learned.

2. Consider the legacy

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Leon and the United Nations call on visitors to consider the legacy of slavery: intergenerational trauma within the descendants of enslaved people, along with institutional racism in our society. We often forget that this country endured 250 years of slavery, and it has only been about 150 years since slavery was abolished. While it’s important to remember how slavery has encoded itself into how our country works, we should also consider the extent to which slave labor is responsible for the United States’ wealth and dominance as a world power.

3. Lest We Forget

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Finally, the monument calls on visitors to remember the tragedies of slavery, which are still, to some extent, alive and well in modern society. Beyond modern manifestations of the tragedy, the memorial serves to honor the victims who lost their lives and livelihoods to the institution.

SIDE NOTE: NOT JUST A SOUTHERN PROBLEM.

You may be wondering why (or, if) it makes sense to memorialize the victims of slavery in New York City, when we so often associate slavery with the American South and the Caribbean. While New York City often likes to advertise itself as a champion of progressive values, the Conspiracy of 1741 serves as a reality check: NYC was just as embroiled in the institution of slavery as the rest of the country. In 1741, Manhattan had the second biggest population of slaves out of the 13 colonies, after Charleston, South Carolina. That year, 14 fires erupted around Lower Manhattan in two months, and a slave had been arrested after he was caught fleeing the scene of a warehouse fire that April. (Note: There was no proof he had anything to do with the fire. For all we know, he was a human being who, imbued with survival instincts, didn’t want to hang out in a building being burnt to the ground.) When an Irish indentured servant was arrested for theft, she pointed her finger at an alleged conspiracy of poor whites and blacks to burn down Manhattan, kill white men, and take white women for themselves. She thus inspired a “witch hunt” that resulted in over 100 people (mostly slaves and freed black people) being lynched, exiled, and burned at the stake. This was not the only event of its kind: another example is New York’s Slave Revolt of 1712.