COMMEMORATIVE ACTIVISM: TRACING BLACK NATIONALISM THROUGH CONTEMPORARY CAMPAIGNS TO MEMORIALIZE U.S. SLAVERY, 1991-2017
Fitzmaurice, Megan Irene
Parry-Giles, Shawn J
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While much of current public discourse focuses on the ways that black activists are working to desecrate or destroy racist memorials, there has been less discussion about the ways that lobbying to produce antiracist memorials can also serve as a form of protest. This study engages three case studies wherein black activist groups fought for the construction of slavery memorials in New York City, Philadelphia, and Richmond. These instances of commemorative activism are the focus of this study, wherein activists challenge existing commemorative culture by engaging alternative memorial practices. The underlying premise of this study is that these slavery memorials and the activists’ rhetoric resisted absent and/or distorted memories of slavery in their communities. This study analyzes the debates surrounding these memorials to demonstrate ways that the activists recirculated historical ideologies of black nationalism in their protest rhetoric. Specifically, the activists engaged themes of self-determination, black liberation, black power, and Pan-Africanism as they sought to challenge a commemorative culture rooted in white supremacy. This study accordingly situates commemorative activism as a contemporary strategy of resistance in the ongoing black freedom struggle. The black activists in this study fought to determine the commemorative landscape, liberate their ancestors’ memories from post-slavery containment, recover memories of black resistance from selective amnesia, and advance global solidarity surrounding memories of the slave trade and ongoing anti-black racism. This study also examines ways that the subsequent commemorations represent enduring repositories of black nationalist ideologies, challenging racist cultural attitudes embedded in the memorials’ environment. Through their form and function, these commemorations visualize the continued relevance of self-determination, black liberation, black power, and Pan-Africanism within post-slavery communities. These memorials ultimately reflect the beliefs of the activists who fought for their construction, revealing the radical potential of commemorative activism to challenge racist attitudes, structures, and landscapes.