A labor acknowledgement is a statement that formally addresses the human costs associated with the economic development of a particular geographic region within the United States, with specific emphasis on the role and contributions of enslaved and exploited Black people within this often opaque history. The practice of a labor acknowledgement is relatively new to predominantly white institutions, and research and articles on the practice are limited. However, institutional examples exist and provide insight into the practice.
"Over the past several years, I have been thinking about enslaved Africans’ labor, their ascendants, and how the tremors of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing white supremacy have reverberated throughout the generations. We must acknowledge that labor in more consistent, meaningful, and material ways. These reflections brought me to the question of the possibility of labor acknowledgements, similar to the process of land acknowledgements but focused squarely on Black Americans’ historical realities.
Given this, I have begun to give land and labor acknowledgements to address this vital reality as a material and symbolic practice. For conferences and meetings, this practice has become essential and powerful. Not only have enslaved Africans labored on the lands where many hotels exist, but in many cities, Black Americans continue to serve as housekeepers/janitors/custodians, kitchen staff, and other service roles that often go unnoticed and uncompensated in ways they deserve. Additionally, I have begun to include a labor acknowledgement statement on my class syllabi as a way to hold my students and me accountable for centering labor in our knowledge co-construction and framing of class content and topics."
- From On Labor Acknowledgements and Honoring the Sacrifice of Black Americans by Dr. T. J. Stewart
"We must acknowledge that much of what we know of this country today, including its culture, economic growth, and development throughout history and across time, has been made possible by the labor of enslaved Africans and their ascendants who suffered the horror of the transatlantic trafficking of their people, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow. We are indebted to their labor and their sacrifice, and we must acknowledge the tremors of that violence throughout the generations and the resulting impact that can still be felt and witnessed today."
The purpose of a labor acknowledgement is to bring awareness to the extent to which economic progress in the United States has been dependent upon the enslavement of Black people. It is also an attempt to engender a culture of transparency regarding the historic and ongoing violence inflicted upon Black communities in the United States and globally.
Below are a few mindful considerations to contemplate when crafting a respectful and authentic Labor Acknowledgement.
All acknowledgements should begin earnestly with research, which will help properly contextualize and frame an acknowledgement. Consider research broadly related to your immediate community or geographic region as a starting point.
Identify the specific places, institutions, and regions with which the statement will be associated. On the following page, readers can view a variety of Labor Acknowledgements from differing institutions.
Consider the language utilized within a statement. Strive for accuracy in naming or describing any parties, groups, or individuals within the acknowledgement.
Contact and engage with relevant stakeholders within a campus, institutional, community, or geographical setting. Stakeholder outreach and participation is not only a means of fostering empowerment, but also engendering a space of reclamation for communities whose histories have been erased or obscured.
Video: Labor Acknowledgement In Advance Of Black History Month
In the video below, Whitney McGuire, co-founder of Sustainable BK, opens her remarks with a labor acknowledgement at the Study Hall Conference, which is an annual free summit on Sustainable Fashion.
McGuire, W. (2020, Feb 12). Labor Acknowledgement In Advance Of Black History Month. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bu4maCxPCOk
From the University of Chicago Libraries:
"We recognize that the United States as we know it was built at the often-fatal expense of forcefully enslaved Black people. We must acknowledge that much of what we know of this country today, including its culture, economic growth, and development has been made possible by the labor of enslaved Africans and their descendants who suffered the horror of the transatlantic trafficking, chattel slavery, and, later on, dehumanization through segregation and Jim Crow laws. "
From the VT Special Collections and University Archives Online:
"We must also recognize that enslaved Black people generated revenue and resources used to establish Virginia Tech and were prohibited from attending until 1953...[I]n the spirit of community, diversity, and excellence, we commit to advancing a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive community."
From the Paramount Theatre, Aurora, IL:
"We recognize that the United States as we know it was built at the often-fatal expense of forcefully enslaved Black people. We must acknowledge that much of what we know of this country today, including its culture, economic growth, and development has been made possible by the labor of enslaved Africans and their descendants who suffered the horror of the transatlantic trafficking, chattel slavery, and, later on, dehumanization through segregation and Jim Crow laws.
We acknowledge and remember those who did not survive the Middle Passage, those who were beaten and lynched at the hands of White Americans, and those who are still suffering while fighting for their freedom. We remember those who toiled the ground where many theatres have been built and resurrected."
From the Mid-Atlantic Arts Alliance:
"The labor of slaves built many of the civic and federal institutions with which we all interact and benefit from each day. The economics of the transatlantic slave trade and the exportation of cotton allowed the United States to position itself as a leader in global trade for centuries. Our nation continues to profit financially from the exploitation of the descendants of enslaved Africans."
In this podcast, WPI student Evelyn Dube discusses their IQP project related to the history of WPI, its founders, and the development of industry in the Worcester region.