A Detroit priest is leading an international effort to mark the 500th anniversary this year of the arrival of the first African slave in the New World.
"We have to remember this anniversary so we can ask: Why is our human family still suffering from racism after all these years?" the Rev. Clarence Williams, a Detroit Catholic priest, said this month.
Williams is part of a coalition of black Catholic clergy from the Caribbean, South America and Africa that released an 11-page manifesto this month on the lingering effects of racism in the Western Hemisphere.
The release of the English version was timed to fall between the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which was Jan. 15, and Black History Month, which is this month. In other countries, translations are being distributed via the Internet.
The group is calling this anniversary A Sankofa Observance.
"Sankofa is a west African term for looking back to prepare for the future," Williams said.
In May, 50 Catholic parishes in southeast Michigan are to host one-day workshops on recovering from racism that are open to the public. That's not enough time to completely change a person's attitudes, Williams said, but he hopes the sessions will inspire people to take additional training.
"We don't just want to talk about 500 years of trauma," said Williams. "Remembering our dysfunctional history of racism challenges us to try to restore the unity of humanity." Around Sept. 16 - the date in 1501 that the Spanish government approved the transport of the first African slave to the Caribbean - Williams and his coalition plan to host services across North and South America.
Some history textbooks published in the United States date the start of the transatlantic slave trade to the early 1600s, when African slaves were taken to English colonies, Williams said.
"But this is a much larger issue than that, which is why we're going back to 1501, the first year a slave was brought to Hispaniola," he said. "We hope that many people will join us this year and learn about recovering from racism," he said. "There are a lot of good people who want to do the right thing - but don't know what to do."