Category Archives: Museums

Memorials, Memory, and History in the Black Atlantic 

By David Romine

As the first sitting Republican president to visit Africa, President George W. Bush’s speech in Senegal seemed to be more for the benefit of an American audience than an African one. Standing safely out of the noonday July sun on the Isle of Gorée, Bush declared that “At this place liberty and life were stolen and sold. Human beings were delivered and sorted, and weighed, and branded with the marks of commercial enterprises, and loaded as cargo on a voyage without return. One of the largest migrations of history was also one of the greatest crimes of history.” [1]


Acknowledging the violent, dehumanizing history of the transatlantic slave trade at this particular site was by no means accidental. Gorée Island has since the 1990s served as a site of pilgrimage which has become almost de rigueur for visiting presidents, religious leaders, and dignitaries. Among those to speak there since its designation as a site of “Outstanding Universal Value” by UNESCO in 1978 are Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Pope John Paul II, and Bill Clinton. Gorée has joined the ranks of Cape Coast Castle and São Jorge de Mina as sites of remembrance for the horrors of the slave trade by members of the African diaspora.[2]


At only 45 acres, the main attraction on the island is the Maison des Esclaves, or the House of Slaves, its pink outer walls concealing an austere interior. Since 1962, the site has been maintained by a museum founded by Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye in order to preserve the historical significance of the island. Tours take visitors from bare room to bare room, with plaques on the walls, commemorating the millions who passed through the halls of this house and the estimated dozen or so others on the island, culminating in the la porte du voyage sans retour (the door of no return). The door itself, a plain affair on the ground floor, opens directly onto a short, rocky beach and then to the sea. As a potent symbol in the memorialization of the slave trade, the door is described in literature and tourist narratives as the final portal Africans passed through on their way to death and suffering in the New World. It was the beginning of the Middle Passage for millions of men, women, and children.


And yet, as early as 1959, French historians were questioning the idea that the Island of Gorée was a major transshipment point for African slaves. In 1995, Atlantic slave trade historian Philip D. Curtin publicly stated that Gorée was never important in the slave trade and the following year the French historian Emmanuel de Ru lamented in an article in Le Monde that the “myth” of the House of slaves survived by being “resistant to reality.”[3] Archeologists have weighed in, as historical anthropologist François Richard of the University of Chicago argued that the Maison des Esclaves itself “would not have been a commercial point or processing center for slaves.” The lack of literature documenting voyages to and from Gorée is the primary factor for historians’ conclusions, but the island’s small size and lack of infrastructure or apparent evidence of slave trading has led most to conclude that slaves on Gorée resided there in the houses of their owners. In other words, Gorée was not a major site of slave-trading, but a colonial outpost with slaves in residence.

The vast majority of African scholars, historians, and archeologists agree on this perspective. However, some take issue with their methodology. Ibrahim Thiaw, a Senegalese archeologist at IFAN (Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire), commenting on the lack of physical evidence of large numbers of slaves being housed in preparation for sale and transport, argued that chains and confinement were seldom necessary. “Captive populations don’t usually leave much behind,” Thiaw notes. “Archaeologically you won’t find much evidence that Gorée was used as a transshipment center for slaves. But it was clearly an important point in Atlantic trading patterns and, anyway what would you expect to find? Chains? The act of transshipment does not necessarily leave traces in the archaeological record.”

This debate, over the authenticity of Gorée as a site of historical memory of the slave trade, has not ceased, and with each visit by a foreign dignitary, the debate is revived again.[5] President Obama called his recent encounter with la porte du voyage sans retour  to be a “very powerful moment” upon which he reflected on the history of African Americans, but a number of news outlets mentioned the site’s contested history. It is perhaps more reflective of the needs of Senegal as a state than Gorée remains a site of memorialization. Gorée’s physical location, just a short ferry ride from Dakar’s bustling port, draws thousands of tourists a year. As a memorial to the slave trade, Dakar/Gorée now resides amongst other slave castles and trading sites that draw tourists from the African Diaspora to Africa’s coast.

Barack Obama

There are a number of questions that are raised when the site of memorialization is physically disconnected from the event (or events) being memorialized. In the case of the Maison des Esclaves, its supporters claim it to be the actual site of departure for hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Africans bound for the New World. Even if, as Curtin claims, a “mere” 33,000 slaves (estimated) were taken from Gorée in chains, does that mean it is less of a memorial than El Mina or Cape Coast Castle? Does it obscure the suffering of those being led down to the Atlantic littoral and shipped across the ocean? 

Even if it is not the actual site of departure, that fact does not change the reality of the middle passage, of the men and women and children bound in manacles and chained below decks of slave ships. Gorée’s history as an administrative site of empire implicates it in the slave trade and French colonialism, much like Liverpool or London or New York. Does it matter that Gorée is not an “authentic” slave castle? Can Gorée be a placeholder of sorts for the whole history of the transatlantic slave trade in West Africa? Perhaps there perhaps more mundane reasons for its continued popularity, for instance, its accessibility and location so close to a major African city means that it can be seen by thousands of people each year whereas other sites of the West African coast might be far more difficult to reach.

Historians are famously (notoriously) concerned about evidence for claims, perhaps to the point of pedantry, but what work does evidence do in the face of meanings derived from sites such as this? How do sincere fictions such as Gorée serve the dead in ways that no historical monograph, article, or panel presentation ever could?



Acts of Remembrance

By Davide Carozza

How should traumatic acts be remembered? What modes of remembrance are simultaneously moving, penetrating in their insights, and respectful of the tragedy they evoke? There’s a lot to think about in considering the different forms acts of remembrance can take, as well as the potential difficulties they must navigate. So I decided to explore a bit and see what official acts of remembrance of slavery I might find. In doing so, I discovered that UNC Asheville’s Center for Diversity Education is currently hosting an exhibit called “Slave Deeds of Buncombe County.” As a UNCA press release explains:

The exhibit includes the original bound book of bills of sale for enslaved people and wills from the Clerk of Courts, along with a recorded reading station of the testimony of Sarah Gudger taken from the Federal Writer’s Project Slave Narratives through the Library of Congress.

If you follow the second link above, you can examine or download the records that have been collected. I’d like to think about what kind of remembrance these records enact, and I’ll return to that question in a bit. In the meantime, though, the people involved in the project have some thoughts of their own on the issue. Their ideas are captured by the following video, produced by the Buncombe County Government:

The video reflects on acts of remembrance in a number of ways. To begin, a large portion of the video focuses on highlighting the value of the kind of historical work the Center for Diversity Education has undertaken. It is clear, for example, that interested parties appreciate that the government of Buncombe County has officially acknowledged its historical role in the slave trade, as well as the role of slaves in building the infrastructure of the county and the state. In addition, the hope is that the work done will be useful for scholars as they continue to uncover the history, and explore the legacy, of slavery in the US. Meanwhile, historian Darin Waters notes the importance of a creating an object, something that provides a tangible experience of the material, rather than simply reading a printed or digital list of names. The act of holding the bound book of bills of sale produces a different effect, in terms of remembering the human agency that went into selling people, than would reading a list. And Waters hopes, finally, that information from the records, particularly the wills, will offer a look into the lives of the slaves.

These goals and claims point to different facets of acts of remembrance. For example, moments of catharsis seem to constitute one part of remembrance. There is value, because there is a sense of release, in drawing attention to things that have been lost, forgotten, or intentionally hidden. The acknowledgments of the County government’s historical participation in the slave trade and the role of slavery in industrialization seem to work in this way. Another facet of remembrance one might call perpetuation. The hope that this historical work will help produce more scholarship is a mechanism to ensure that the things that are being reclaimed won’t be lost again, indeed that more will be uncovered. Lastly, the creation, or re-creation, of a certain experience is a driving goal of this work. When Waters says there is something important about producing an object people can hold and examine, he’s stressing, I think, the value of making it more difficult to ignore things that make us uncomfortable. An object makes it harder to engage these historical realities superficially, to give a cursory acknowledgment of the tragedy before guarding ourselves against difficult thoughts.

The goal of re-creating a sense of the lives of slaves, on the other hand, falls simultaneously into several of the categories above. It falls naturally in the category of re-creating an experience, albeit one that is remarkably difficult to imagine and enter into as an outsider. It also serves to counteract the calculated and institutional effacement of the humanity of slaves, a history of action that goes beyond hiding something and points instead to the willful blindness of those who stood to benefit from the belief that humans could be property. It can’t help but make us uncomfortable. In truth, all the categories that I’m thinking of bleed into one another, and creating an image of the lives of slaves is likely only one of many ways to point to the intersections. It is a particularly poignant one, though.

In the end, it’s these intersections that I think are most helpful in understanding and characterizing acts of remembrance. I would argue that remembrance is always a fragmented and constantly shifting process. There is no complete act of remembrance, and the process requires various complementary approaches. In fact, the approaches are more than simply complementary: they are, in some ways, even at odds, though productively so. Consider the work presented by the exhibit. It seeks to give slaves a name and a place in history by cataloguing their lives—by cataloguing their lives. It’s simultaneously a way to restore some of sense of their individuality and a process that highlights how difficult it is to maintain that sense when doing this kind of work. The same process that names and provides some history for the slaves also groups them together in a de-individualizing way. But the realization that different acts of remembrance, or even single instances of it, produce this tension spurs on new, unique work in the quest to recapture things that cannot be fully retrieved.

I’ll point now to my favorite part of the exhibit, the “recorded reading station of the testimony of Sarah Gudger taken from the Federal Writer’s Project Slave Narratives through the Library of Congress.” You can watch the video here:

It’s my favorite part for several reasons, most of which are straightforward. Sarah Gudger was interviewed in 1937, at the age of 121, for the Library of Congress project. She passed away the same year. The first link goes to the general page of the collection, the second to her particular interview, the one re-created in the video. It’s just remarkable that she lived long enough to share her story. It’s also fascinating to think about the way that the video literally gives her a voice, both in the sense that it (re)verbalizes her testimony and that the producers chose to re-create what it might have sounded like coming from her.

The last thing I’ll mention is that I learned of this exhibit on “The official UN [Facebook] page for the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade commemorated each year on 25 March.” Check it out if you’re interested.