Archival Lives Conference

Archival Lives

The Violence of History and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

December 5-7, 2019

Emory University

Emory University Conference Center

Conference Organizers

Adriana Chira (History), Clifton Crais (African Studies/History), Walter Rucker (African American Studies/History)[1]

Since the 1960s, scholars of slavery and the slave trade have systematically collected archival sources about trans-Atlantic slave voyages. These efforts formed part of a broader renovation of our understanding of slavery and the slave trade and the transformation of the Atlantic World. Now, more than a half-century later, scholars and the general public have access to vastly richer materials and diverse interpretations of more than three hundred years of human history that profoundly reshaped Africa, Western Europe, and the Americas.

One project, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (TSTD), has become one of the landmark digital repositories of the Atlantic slave trade—a resource that documents more than 35,000 voyages and the participation of dozens of regions along the Atlantic littoral into a trading network with a long-lasting global impact. As such, the database has served as an essential tool for capturing the enormous scale of the trade, its geographic reach, and its demographic, chronological and regional variations. Scholars have drawn on its data, and on the methods that captured it, to shape expanding fields of historical inquiry that defied traditional regional compartmentalization. By providing tools for visualizing the scope of the trade, the database has also proffered additional evidence that capitalism, modernity, and globalism are fundamentally intertwined with the institution of racialized slavery.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, like other archives of slavery, registers a history of violence—one of forceful removal, separation, abjection, and commodification occurring before, during, and after the Middle Passage. Like most such archives, it relies on the very primary sources that objectified life and that were meant to circumscribe oppositional voices and erase ways of being that were irrelevant to profit-driven documentary logics. As many scholars have pointed out, the efforts at circumscription within the archives of slavery remained incomplete. For instance, scholars who have worked in judicial archives have shown that in some contexts, the documentary record brimmed with life and conflict, an observation not meant to naively romanticize resistance, but rather to memorialize a tireless will for survival, rights, and recognition and its political outcomes across the Atlantic. Some have pointed to insurgent mobilization that fissured the institution of slavery and that opened up conversations about the universality of certain rights. Others have called for more attention to Afro-diasporic experiences that exceeded slavery’s logics and that cannot be reduced to the status of a reaction to slavery: resilient lives of communion, solidarity, domesticity, and pleasure. Through these approaches, historians have captured vernacular ways of thinking about social alternatives even in contexts of extreme oppression.

This workshop will be a space to reckon with what it means to work with and produce archives of the African diaspora. “Archival Lives” aims to capture the tensions and alignments between past and present efforts to archive life more generally, and of the force of violence in the very constitution of evidence and its manifold narrations. What are the ethical stakes of operating from within a tense space in which past documentations of violence enable archives and scholarship? Some of the questions driving the conversations could include, but are not limited to:

  • What are the ethical and epistemological implications of turning experiences of dehumanization into data? In what ways is data similar/distinct from other narrative forms and epistemological modalities that historians engage with?
  • How can scholarship on commodification as a socio-cultural process help us reflect on collections of aggregate data about Afro-descendant individuals?
  • How can our experience of other archives of the African diaspora inform how we approach the archives of the slave trade?
  • How has the TSTD and other forms of evidence been involved in public debates about reparations and memorialization of slavery?
  • How have popular efforts to take control of the archives of slavery reshaped our understanding of historical production?
  • What does it mean to write Afro-diasporic histories out of the archives of slavery?

The workshop will be based on discussion of pre-circulated papers. Participants will be invited to present a primary source relating to their work and situate it reflexively in relation to archival-creating endeavors, past or present.