The Ark of Return

©UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras - Left to right: H.E. Ambassador John W. Ashe, President of the 68th General Assembly; Rodney Leon, winner of the international competition to design a memorial to honour the victims of transatlantic slave trade; UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon; and UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova.

The pristine white marble structure, a stones’ throw from Manhattan’s East River, will be a spiritual place for remembrance without shame. “Facing east we can look back to where we came from,” said Rodney Leon, author of Ark of Return,  following the announcement today that he was the winner of an international competition to design a memorial that will be permanently on display at United Nations Headquarters in New York to honour the victims of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

The work of Mr. Leon, the Manhattan-based designer and architect of the African Burial Ground National Monument in lower Manhattan, was selected from among 310 design proposals from 83 countries in a competition launched two years ago by UNESCO, with support from the UN Department of Public Information’s Remember Slavery Programme, and Member States from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the African Union.  Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller of Jamaica, other Heads of Government, Foreign Ministers, as well as film director Lee Daniels, attended today’s unveiling.

© Rodney Leon
The revised concept of the Memorial, a 15’ high Chamber

It was envisioned as a “symbolic spiritual space and object where one can interact and pass through for acknowledgement, contemplation, meditation, reflection, healing, education and transformation,” according to Leon, who is of Haitian descent.

“The memorial will acknowledge the struggle of the millions of Africans who, over the course of four centuries, were violently removed from their homelands, ruthlessly abused and robbed of their dignity,” said Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon, who added: “The memorial will serve as a reminder of the bravery of those slaves, abolitionists and unsung heroes who managed to rise up against an oppressive system, fight for their freedom and end the practice.”

“People of African descent need to learn about history in a way that is not filled with shame but pride,” Leon said, adding the same is true for people not of African descent,  “It is a shared human experience.”

“The slave trade is not merely a thing of the past -- it has shaped the world we live in, it has moulded the face of modern societies, creating indissoluble ties between peoples, irreversibly transforming economies, cultures and customs across the world,” said UNESCO Director-General irina Bokova.  “The slave trade concerns not only people of African descent but the whole of humanity.“

“I have just come from Haiti, where the memory of slavery and the slave trade carries special significance, as it does for many people of the Caribbean,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, “Haiti reminds us that the history of slavery is not only one of suffering and injustice – it is a victorious fight from oppression to freedom, a quest for universal human rights, guided by the belief in human dignity, in the equality of all women and men.  These are the founding principles of the United Nations, and we must take every occasion to renew our commitment to these ideals.”

“The slave trade concerns not only people of African descent but the whole of humanity. “ said UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova.

“We are gathered here today to collectively remember that the tragic era of the transatlantic slave trade marked a traumatic period felt primarily and painfully in the history of the peoples of African descent. This most ghastly period in human history speaks to the greed, ignorance, and racial prejudices that existed at the time and sadly, which still exist in many places today, albeit in somewhat diverse forms,” said H.E. Ambassador John W. Ashe, President of the 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.  Noting that 2013 marks the 206th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, he added,   “we must not forget that human decency, bravery and ingenuity led to the breaking of the shackles of slavery and burdens of bigotry. “

His wife, Galia Austin-Leon and their daughters, Alexandria, 12 and Saniyah, 9, accompanied Leon.

 “We don’t want to forget what we had to go through as well as what we have accomplished” said Austin-Leon. “It’s pretty cool,” is how Saniyah summed up Ark of Return.

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