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Slavery and Memory in the Black Atlantic


Admission requirements



Slavery’s destructive impact is still felt today. For more than four centuries, the Americas, Europe, and Africa were inextricably linked via the transatlantic slave trade. Estimates suggest that more than 12.5 million enslaved Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean to North and South America and the Caribbean. According to Paul Gilroy, this created the “Black Atlantic,” a “culture that is not specifically African, American, Caribbean, or British, but all of these at once.” Although slavery was formally ended in the Americas in the course of the nineteenth century, its legacy remains highly visible in all societies touched by this mass forced migration. This course will examine the politics of remembering and forgetting slavery and its legacies from a transatlantic perspective. We will read Narrative of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and a number of novels inspired by Douglass’s and other slave testimonies including Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016). We’ll also watch a number of films: D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind (1939), and Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning film Twelve Years A Slave (2013).
We’ll also engage with the contested memory of the American Civil War and read articles about the memorialization of slavery throughout the Atlantic world. Finally, we will study how slavery is remembered and represented in museums and historic sites under the influence of new trends in museum studies and in the context of public debates. To do so, we will visit a museum exhibition about slavery together (e.g. the Rijksmuseum or the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam); subsequently student groups will select a museum, or historic and/or heritage site of their choice and make a video presentation of the memory of slavery (or, in some cases, lack thereof) presented there.

Course objectives

This course seeks to:

  • provide students with a critical understanding of how slavery has been represented, contested, and remembered (or sometimes “forgotten”) in autobiographical and fictional texts and films, as well as museum exhibits and public heritage sites;

  • provide students with a critical understanding of relevant theoretical concepts from trauma theory and memory studies (trauma versus narrative memory, witnessing, multidirectional memory);

  • provide students with basic knowledge of recent trends in museum studies (“the new museology”, museum as “contact zone,” museum as enabler of social change);

  • enable students to develop their skills to conduct independent research, both individually and in a group;

  • enable students to develop oral and written communication skills in English (discussion, essay, video script).

Students also learn:

  • to analyze a curated exhibit/heritage site or tour systematically and critically (as if it were a text), making use relevant theoretical concepts (see above);

  • as a group, to summarize and communicate main findings in a video presentation (video script and Storyboard, animated powerpoint, voice recordings, etc.) and to learn to post this on digital platform Pitch2Peer (Brightspace);

  • to develop basic video production skills;

  • to reflect critically on the process of producing the video and the final product (group video) and to provide online peer review of the videos of other groups.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method


Attendance is compulsory. Missing more than three tutorials means that students will be excluded from taking the exam (in casu essay and other assignments) and resits. Consequently, the course cannot be completed during that particular academic year. Unauthorized absence also applies to being unprepared and/or not bringing the relevant course texts to class.

  • Active Participation/coöperation in class/group (10%)

  • Essay, paper (60%)

  • Group Video Project (30%)


See above.


The participation grade must be a 6.0 or above. Only for the paper grade can a resit be arranged.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

  • Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass (e.g. Dover Thrift ed. ISBN 978-0486284996)

  • Octavia Butler, Kindred (e.g. Headline ISBN 978-1472258229)

  • Toni Morrison, Beloved (e.g. Vintage ISBN 978-0099511656)

  • Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing (e.g. Penguin ISBN 978-0241975237)

  • Links to additional readings on trauma, memory and museum studies will be posted on Brightspace.


Enrolment through My Studymap (Login | Universiteit Leiden) is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch


For information concerning the content of this course please contact the course coordinator is dr. Sara Polak.

For practical information Student administration Arsenaal


Not applicable.