A textbook chapter written by the 9th-grade world history class
“Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
–Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Our perceptions of people and places can be vastly distorted when we only have one perspective on them. The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie explores this idea in her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” Adichie explains that viewing others from a narrow perspective prevents us from authentically connecting and robs people of dignity. People with power can spread a single story and attach harmful stereotypes to a marginalized group. When we reject the single story and seek out many perspectives, we can mitigate some of this damage and approach a better understanding.
The single story is dangerous when applied to history because it reinforces a simplified view of people, places, or events. History (or hi-story) is really many stories, many interpretations. As storytellers, historians have great power and responsibility. We can apply Adichie’s lesson to history in two ways. First, we can seek to understand multiple stories about any group or event, and second, we can interpret historical conflicts through the lens of what stories each group believed about the other.
In our world history class, we kept in mind the danger of a single story as we navigated multiple perspectives on the transatlantic slave trade. Between 1525 and 1866, European slave traders forced 12.5 million Africans onto ships destined for the Americas. 10.7 million of these Africans survived the horrific transatlantic journey and started new lives as slaves in the New World. In this textbook chapter on the slave trade, we try to mitigate the danger of a single story by incorporating multiple perspectives and challenging common assumptions. We bring together a diverse range of sources, including many firsthand accounts. However, we have come to accept that it is impossible to completely eliminate bias. Historians who challenge others’ assumptions and biases cannot entirely transcend their own.
One might ask, why should we study the transatlantic slave trade? Why is it significant? Well, one important reason is that its legacies are still with us today. The slave trade, slavery, and slave-related industries formed the foundation of the United States economy. The slave trade also had major effects on economies in Africa and Europe. We see the legacies of the slave trade and of resistance to slavery in some of the cultural traditions of the African diaspora. The slave trade and its aftermath underlie our modern notions of what it means to be black or white. Another reason for learning about the transatlantic slave trade is that it can provide perspective on modern-day slavery, as the global traffic in human beings continues in different forms.
In order to provide a comprehensive view of the transatlantic slave trade, we have divided the topic into four sections: Slave Perspectives and Experiences, European Perspectives and Experiences, African Perspectives and Experiences, and Human Rights. The first three sections bring together multiple stories of the slave trade, as opposed to one simple narrative. Our Human Rights section links the abolitionist movement to the rise of international human rights law and discusses human trafficking today. We hope that our readers gain a better understanding of the diverse human stories of the transatlantic slave trade.