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Slavery North Garners $2.65 million USD grant from The Andrew J. Mellon Foundation

Ever heard of Slavery North? Well, all that’s about to change. This new University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) initiative is set to transform the landscape of Slavery Studies in Canada and the US North. First launched by our fearless leader, Charmaine A. Nelson, at NSCAD University back in 2020 as the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery (an international first), Charmaine brought the research hub with her when she relocated to UMass in 2022. The reasons for her move? Well, let’s just say that despite having garnered one the highest academic research awards in Canada, a Tier I Canada Research Chair, and being the founding director of a pathbreaking institute, she was not treated with the respect she had so clearly earned. Fast forward to 2022 and Charmaine garnered official initiative status for the newly renamed Slavery North, the first step to becoming an institute or a research centre at UMass. Charmaine explains that, “the choice to expand the work of Slavery North to encompass the US North was obvious since states like Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and others have, like Canada, consistently denied their participation in Transatlantic Slavery, instead choosing to play up their roles in abolition.”

With the support of UMass colleagues, Charmaine secured a $2.65 million dollar Mellon Grant, the largest ever awarded to UMass. Established in 1969, The Andrew J. Mellon Foundation is the largest funder of the arts, culture, and humanities in the USA. “I am incredibly grateful for Mellon’s support. It is an incomparable endorsement of the work we are seeking to accomplish,” says Charmaine, an internationally acclaimed scholar who has published 7 books and has 2 more currently in press.

The transformative potential of Slavery North is evident in several ways. First, at its heart is a fellowship program that will provide funding and research support. Fellowships will be open to an international pool of applicants including regional undergraduate honours students from the Five College Consortium, MA and PhD students, artists-in-residence, and visiting scholars. Charmaine sees the artists as essential because, “most people will never pick up an academic book, but they will go see Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave or the play Angelique. Therefore, if public knowledge of slavery in these regions is to grow, we need to bring artists to the table.” But the focus on cold-climate regions, places where the enslaved became the minority of the population, is also a breakthrough for Slavery North. As Charmaine has made clear, “because Transatlantic Slavery has become synonymous with tropical plantation societies, many people have forgotten that slavery was also practiced in places like Canada, the US North, Argentina, and Denmark. The knock-on effect is that the robust subfields of study on issues like labour, sexuality, family, cultural practice, nutrition, and resistance in these lesser-known areas are either underdeveloped or have yet to emerge.” Applicants must demonstrate how their research or research-creation (art making) fits into Slavery North mandate areas. By giving fellows the time, space, and support to do their work within a collaborative environment, Slavery North seeks to accelerate the growth of Slavery Studies for these understudied regions. But Slavery North is also a game-changer because Charmaine insists that its research outcomes continue to be public-facing, like those she produced during her short two-year stay at NSCAD.

The Mellon grant will provide the funds to support the fellows, hire permanent staff, and sustain innovative research activities that include Black History Month panels, art exhibitions, an academic conference, workshops, and a podcast. As Charmaine has noted, “Slavery North is an academic initiative with a social justice mission. The work will transform the understanding of slavery in these neglected regions and with it, the knowledge of the centuries-long roots of anti-black racism in both Canada and the USA.” We say, Amen to that!