The 15th anniversary of the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade is an auspicious time to reconsider the etymology of the word “commemorate.”

Coined in the 1590s, as sugar was poised to revolutionize Atlantic slave economies, the word “commemorate” entered the lexicon as an appeal: “to be brought to remembrance.” It was a collective call to action — to remember, to perpetuate the memory of, to be mindful.

In whatever ways we remember — in curriculum or through monuments — to commemorate is a human endeavor.

People write the bills, pass the laws, build the institutions, develop the economic structures and create the societies in which we live. They craft the social and political contracts that determine what and how we remember and why.

And if it is people who built unjust, hierarchical exploitative systems like the institution of slavery and its auxiliary industries, then it is also people who must design better economic and social systems, make amends and commit to the reparatory work.

If it is people who suffer from a poverty of imagination so that they cannot envision a world of atonement and repair around the atrocities of slavery and the slave trade, then it is also people who must have the courage to reckon with the past and explore its meanings for the present.

On the heels of this anniversary, comes alarming trends across the United States where at least 40 states have taken significant legislative steps to suppress or limit how teachers and learners can engage with the history of race, racism and race relations along with other forms of identity, including gender and sexual orientation.

In addition to these salvos at the K-12 level, various bills are taking aim at the higher education curriculum by threatening the tenure system and using state education funding as a cudgel in this renewed battle over how we should remember the past.

What connects this 15th anniversary to these disquieting trends? A systemic weaponizing of legal, education and civic institutions to counter calls for a more egalitarian and just world.

Abolitionists across the globe understood the ways in which the law, state and local government entities, educational policies, curricular content and media were all deployed to justify the institution of slavery.

In no slave society did abolitionists outnumber pro-slavery advocates, and antislavery sentiments and antislavery laws did not yield anti-racist societies. Yet, as Robin Black has argued, “the foundering of racial slavery nevertheless represented a historic gain.”

It is in this context that we must continue to embrace the opportunities to tell fuller and more accurate stories about slavery and the slave trade no matter how fraught the environment.

Although more than 80% of U.S. states have taken measures to curb curricular engagement with race and racism, people in 40% of states have taken different steps towards making history more inclusive. This includes initiatives to integrate African American history into the U.S. history surveys; in Connecticut, this also includes Latino Studies and Puerto Rican Studies.

The scales need not be proportional to take stock of the significance of these kinds of interventions and the courage it takes for legislatures, community activists, youth and educators to press on with the vision of more accurate, nuanced and inclusive stories.

Across the globe, the tenor around race, bias and discrimination is resoundingly similar.

The U.S. Helsinki Commission recently held hearings in 2019 on the “The State of Diversity and Inclusion in Europe: Race, Rights, and Politics,” while the European Union hosted its inaugural Anti-Racism and Diversity Week.

The scourge of racism, ethnocentrism and other forms of bias continues to find new roots in our contemporary society, and it is never too late to start the fight against them.

Education is among the most important tools in the arsenal to encourage young people to be intellectually curious and courageous, to explore how this phase of their life can lead to both practical skill and training as well as preparation for a civically engaged and ethical life.

Education in the form of lifelong learning and professional development also provides the scaffolding that can truly shape how adults who missed some of these key lessons in their secondary and tertiary education can have opportunities to make up that lost ground.

Education is a lifelong process, and we will never fully comprehend all aspects of the lives lost to slavery and the slave trade.

Annual commemorations like the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade offer an opportunity to pause, reflect and think about the state of our knowledge and what is different about the context and the moment. It provides an opportunity to explore the relevance and meaning of the past in the present.

This commemoration adds intentionality and collective action. It attempts to build a community that can be “brought to remembrance.”

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series calling attention to the United Nations International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (March 25). The previous articles in the series are:

Why We Need to Remember | Jim Hill

The Debt America Refuses to Pay: Part 2 | Wendell Griffen

The Debt America Refuses to Pay: Part 1 | Wendell Griffen

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