Category Archives: Remembrance

The Slave Trade, in Silhouette

Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart
Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart

The Atlantic Slave Trade, in Silhouette

Antebellum plantation life is something that all-too-often white America rehashes in a myriad of ways from subdivisions bulldozed into the hillsides of southern states with names like ‘Saint James Plantation’ to naming Gone with the Wind on lists of ‘best novels’ without a hint of irony, analysis, or even an (unacceptable) apologetic cringe.  This rehashing reiterates the racism used to justify slavery in America and brings it very much into the present with, often, a complete lack of awareness.  Artist Kara Walker faces head-on these issues, and more, when she addresses the representation of race, racism, and slavery with her unflinching paper-cut silhouettes displaying the violence of the Atlantic slave trade and the harrowing reality of sexual violence, commodification of human lives, and racial stereotypes.  She says herself, “Most pieces have to do with exchanges of power, attempts to steal power away from others.” Her work is powerful and welcome in a world that too often tries to sugar coat, dismiss, or otherwise contend that we should all ‘move on’.

Kara Walker and her Art

Kara Walker was born in 1969 in Stockton, California and moved to Georgia at 13.  She studied art at Atlanta College of Art and Rhode Island School of Design receiving her BA and BFA, respectively, in 1991 and 1994. Her work has shown internationally at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum voor Modern Kunst (The Netherlands); and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Among many, many others that you can see on her exhibition page. She’s well-known for her work in silhouette, but keep in mind that she also works in painting and media.

But for this post, though, I’ll be looking specifically at her work in silhouette.  Which is killer powerful.  Using the medium of the paper cut silhouette Walker alludes to the 18th century bourgeois elite that popularized the art form and, in doing so, creates a collision of juxtaposed ideas: rather than the paper-cut silhouette telling the story of privilege it tells the story of what the elite, or the oppressor, did throughout slavery. The pastoral placidity of silhouettes exist in stark contrast to the images that regale the viewer with vicious, disruptive images of slavery, violence, and racist stereotypes. It’s a reflection of the dynamic that exists in America on the topic of slavery: the placid pretending of an issue that has past with the trauma of the truth – both past and present. You can listen to her discuss paper-cut silhouette and the meaning it has for her.


Sexual Violence and the Slave Trade

Sexual violence is a recurring theme in Walker’s work.  In the image below, we see a white slave owner seated, literally, on the shoulders of a young enslaved boy, which positions the owner to receive oral sex from a young enslaved woman kneeling in front of him.  The young boy calls to mind the condemned Atlas, destined forever to carry the weight of (depending on which version you prefer) the sky, Earth, or Uranus. The young woman, hesitant in her body language, is forced into her prone position by the guiding hand of the man who owns her (or might, given the widespread sexual violation of enslaved women by the men who enslaved them).  His hand hovers delicately above her head, as if he were penning a letter to his sister, or about to pick up a cup of tea. But this wolf cloaked in sheep’s clothing, as-it-were, is exactly the point.  The silhouette of the white owner brings to mind images of founding fathers with their neatly powdered wigs, ruffled shirts, and high collars.  This comparison, given that so many of the founding fathers owned slaves (including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson), asks the viewers to consider who slave owners actually were that were capable of such loathsome behavior.  It could be easy to dismiss a slave owner who raped his slave as a violent monster and the exception.  But what if he were a well-respected community leader?  Or the President of the United States?   Viewers must reconsider the inhumanity of slavery, and who the perpetrators were, and whether this vicious sexual violence and oppression was actually the norm as opposed to the exception.  With deft snips of her scissors, Walker captures the exploitation of enslaved people who were commodified in order to support an economic system that lived and breathed cotton. As Kara Walker says herself, “My works are erotically explicit, shameless. I would be happy if visitors would stand in front of my work and feel a bit ashamed—ashamed because they have…simply believed in the project of modernism.”

Kara Walker The Emancipation Approximation
detail from Kara Walker’s The Emancipation Approximation


Likewise, we see sexual violence again in the below image, this time between a white boy and enslaved black girl.  The innocent image of two children playing in a field on a sunny day turns on its head as the girl, crouched on her knees, performs oral sex on the boy who seems entirely absorbed in his playful day and unaware of the trauma his role in race and racism creates. It’s disturbing at the very least and, again, that’s the point. When white America romanticizes antebellum plantations they might think of Scarlett O’Hara, sweet Southern accents, and buoyant gowns. But they might do better to also be thinking of this:

detail, kara walker



Truth about the Slave Trade: Then and Now

Walker’s work asks viewers to consider what’s really happening in a piece.  Is it real? What is the line between imagination and fantasy?  And have fantasies allowed for the exploitation of human lives throughout slavery and to the present day? Are the feelings happening inside the viewer occurring because of Walker’s work or because of a complicated interplay between her work and the individual viewer’s unique perceptions of race, racism, and the history of slavery in America? Walker invites the viewer to consider the true story of slavery as opposed to the story that is told in American classrooms – glossed over and put aside. Her work is provocative, upsetting, disturbing, and powerful.

Walker successfully takes the viewer on a journey into the truths of slavery and racism and how the viewer has been complicit.  She doesn’t instruct the viewer but instead allows us to sit with our own discomfort.  She says herself:

“I don’t know how much I believe in redemptive stories, even though people want them and strive for them. They’re satisfied with stories of triumph over evil, but then triumph is a dead end. Triumph never sits still. Life goes on. People forget and make mistakes. Heroes are not completely pure, and villains aren’t purely evil. I’m interested in the continuity of conflict, the creation of racist narratives, or nationalist narratives, or whatever narratives people use to construct a group identity and to keep themselves whole—such activity has a darker side to it, since it allows people to lash out at whoever’s not in the group. That’s a contact thread that flummoxes me.”

Walker does not shy away from the trauma of the Atlantic slave trade, the realities of slavery, or the pervasive racist stereotype. She forces the viewer to confront these painful realities and racism (even if internalized) and to consider what role we have played in ignoring, romanticizing, supporting, or silencing by allowing us to sit with our own discomfort without assurances or exit. It’s not a comfortable experience, looking at her work.  But somehow it’s a relief (in the way that honesty can be an uncomfortable relief) to see the train wreck of truth and lies that pervade this country splashed, literally, across a wall. Her work is a welcome antithesis of cheery book-list recommendations suggesting Gone with the Wind as one of the 50 best novels and the pandemic of newly-bulldozed subdivisions bearing the word, somewhere in their name, ‘Plantation’.

And you can see her work soon, too. Check out her upcoming exhibit in Brooklyn this May. It’s showing in a Domino Sugar warehouse, no less. Like I said, she doesn’t mince words. Or silhouettes.

images via Ozarts etc


Retirer d’en bas de l’eau: Reclaiming the Dead in Black Atlantic Studies

Lone govi under a tree. Photograph by Aimee Green

By Lenny Lowe

It is often said that writing history is like trying to raise the dead. Nowhere is this miracle more difficult to achieve than in the field that has become known as “the black Atlantic” at the core of which lies the legacy of the transAtlantic slave trade. Its archives are eerily silent in nearly every place that one wishes them to speak. Furthermore, the ethics and politics of remembrance are especially delicate. Search too hard or represent too much, and you are branded a sentimentalist, or worse, a novelist. Remember too little or sound too hopeful, and you risk naiveté and irreverence. The task is supremely difficult, but the enduring presence of so many dead demands that it be tried again and again. In thinking about this struggle, I am reminded of other members of the black Atlantic who set out to reclaim the dead year after year.

In her 1953 Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, filmmaker Maya Deren described a vodou ritual for the reclamation of the dead:

“One of the major Vodoun rituals is the ceremony of retirer d’en bas de l’eau, the reclamation of the soul of the deceased from the waters of the abyss, the world of les Invisibles.”[i]

Deren is here writing about a ceremony that occurs (ideally) one year and a day from the death of an individual. The dead, having been deprived of material form and having gone to rest in the waters of the abyss, are ritually called up from “under the water.” The gros-bon-ange (here understood as the “soul” of the person in contrast to the ti-bon-ange, which is something like a Catholic moral conscience) is placed into a clay jar. This jar, called a govi, becomes its new material form, and it is with this form that the living world will resume its relationship with the dead. The dead individual, once a living and breathing human creature, is reclaimed and reinserted into the social world of the living. This ritual of reclamation is, for those involved, a pressing matter – an obligation.

For Deren’s vodouisants, she suggests that:

“This service for the ancestral dead is not a nostalgia or sentimentality…It is not a moment of return to the past; it is the procedure by which the race reincorporates the fruit of previous life-processes into the contemporary moment, and so retains the past as a ground gained, upon and from which it moves forward to the future. The living do not serve the dead; it is the dead who are made to serve the living.”[ii]

It is not my aim to suggest that this ritual is or is not informed by the memory of the Middle Passage. There is a great deal of evidence from West and Central African cosmologies to suggest that the notion of the watery abyss of the dead is not unique to Africans who survived the crossing. It also seems unthinkable that such imagery would not be, at least, multivalent for the Haitian religious imagination. Still, regardless of how various scholars might assign proper provenance to this ritual practice, I am primarily struck by the ritual’s relevance to the work of the anthropologists and historians of the so-called “Black Atlantic.”

No less than  Deren’s vodouisants, scholars of the Atlantic world are engaged in rituals of reclamation (i.e. the making of monograph-govi, blog post-govi, archive-govi, etc.). Through this work, the dead are reclaimed, revivified and — despite our denials and apologies — they are also put to work for political and professional projects that they did not choose. Certainly, we are justified in our concern over such exploitation of the dead. But, if the long line of figures like Aimé Césaire, Edouard Glissant, and Paul Gilroy have taught us anything at all, it is that the resources for thinking the black Atlantic are to be found in the social worlds of the black Atlantic. Perhaps, then, the govi of Haitian vodou and the ritual of retire d’en bas de l’eau have something to say about our work.

“Heathen” funeral in colonial Jamaica

While it is certainly true that the dead pervade all religious lives, whether as saints, ancestors, or even as the generalized “ambient dead,”[iii] it is also the case that the slave trade generated death on such a scale that it has uniquely structured the worlds of the black Atlantic. Vincent Brown’s The Reaper’s Garden has made this fact eminently clear. For both Europeans and Africans living in colonial Jamaica, the near-constant loss of life both in the Middle Passage and in the new land itself meant that the dead came to occupy a prominent position in the social, political, and economic lives of Jamaicans. In both material and immaterial matters, the dead were undeniably agents. The dead spoke. The dead made demands. It is in the negotiation between the demands of the dead and the exigencies of the living that “real life” in Jamaica was made.

As scholars of the black Atlantic, we are no doubt engaged in similar negotiations, and yet we too rarely imagine the situation thus. We seem to be keenly aware of the demands of the dead (i.e. to be remembered, to be honored), but we are less certain of our own exigencies. Or, perhaps, we are less certain of how much we need their service to make sense of our “real life.” In my view, Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic wrestles with precisely this problem. Namely, it is the problem of Hegel, the problem of dialectics — the problem of the negative. He takes as his aid to meditation on the problem of modernity the 1781 Zong massacre, in which one hundred and thirty-two slaves were thrown overboard to collect insurance money on the “lost cargo.” Baucom’s book is, therefore, fundamentally a book about the process of govi-making, modes of reclaiming the dead. It asks us to consider how we might go about reclaiming the dead without also employing the same typifying logic and “theoretical realism”[iv] that lies at the core of finance capitalism and the massacre it underwrote/underwrites. In an act of performative refusal, Baucom never quite reaches a moment of prescription. Instead, we are left with a few examples of counterdiscourse and anti-dialectical (i.e. affirmative rather than negative) thought. Chief among them is Edouard Glissant, whose philosophy of history Baucom describes as “sedimentary” and accumulative. In Glissant’s own words, it is relational. In Baucom’s reading of Glissant, this is a view of the past that is not past in any recognizable way. Rather, history accumulates, it stacks up. Connections are forged on top of existing connections. History is understood as a process of addition rather than sublation. In this version of history, loss is — unavoidably — a ground gained.

It is here that the retirer d’en bas de l’eau begins to appear to me as a resource for thinking the black Atlantic. Concerning the ceremony, Deren continues:

“An undistinguished member of the family may be neglected and the costly ceremony of his reclamation repeatedly postponed, to be accomplished eventually, without much enthusiasm, only because nothing of heredity’s accumulations should be permitted to leak away, to be lost forever.”[v]

Deren describes what looks very much like a sedimentary poetics whereby history is made to accumulate. Whether those who remain loved or hated the departed soul, death is refused as a loss. The soul of the dead must be rematerialized, revivified, and reincorporated into the social world of the living, for indeed they are (genetically and relationally) already and always present. What resources exist for the anthropologist or historian in the making of govi for the dead? How do we refuse the loss of death without sentiment or nostalgia? Can we find a way to reclaim the loved and despised “as a ground gained”? The risks are, as always, very high. Not even Deren’s vodouisants are immune. She suggests that, as memories fade with the loss of generations, the person in the govi becomes depersonalized, and something like a principle. But, that cannot be the ultimate end:

“And yet — what once was so real, so substantial, cannot be permitted to end in such rarefaction, to vanish forever into the far reaches of history. This abstraction, to function in reality, must become reality; the principle must become the person. And so the process of abstraction, as though meeting, finally, the limits of its own extension, curves back towards its origins: those who cannot remember begin to create, building now from the inside outward, as one might be guided by the clues and logic of a skeleton to construct a figure.”[vi]

It sounds like black Atlantic scholarship to me.



[i] Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (New Paltz, NY: McPherson, 1983), 27.

[ii] Ibid., 27-28. Italics mine.

[iii] Todd Ochoa, Society of the Dead : Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba (Berkeley: University of California, 2010).

[iv] Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic : Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).

[v] Deren, 28.

[vi] Ibid., 29. Italics in original.

“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” : The Political Power of the Image

In this endlessly interconnected internet age, the idea that an image can have a profound and widespread impact hardly needs to be explained; it’s implicit. The advent of both photography– the way in which potent images of current events could be quickly and realistically produced– and the internet–the way in which they could be widely and rapidly disseminated–hastened and increased the importance of this phenomenon of images used to provoke political discussion.  And an image can in fact be worth a thousand words; in cases from India’s struggle for independence, to the 1960’s civil rights movement, to the war in Syria today, images of social injustice and war have been able to provoke if not a direct solution, the conversation that brought that solution about.  But while modern technology expedited the rise of disseminated images provoking social change, it was not solely responsible; this phenomenon was able to take place before the camera was invented, before the internet was invented.  It took place, for instance, in 1787, with the engraving by Josiah Wedgewood of a kneeling, chained and supplicant slave, with the powerful words below: “Am I not a friend and a brother?”





This image didn’t come out of the blue; it was made for specifically for the purpose of moving hearts and minds.  The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in 1787 by Granville Sharp and Thomas Clarkson.  While the founders themselves were Anglican, the movement was popular amongst Quakers, who made up the other 9 founding members; these were William Dillwyn, John Barton, George Harrison, Samuel Hoare Jr., Joseph Hooper, John Lloyd, Joseph Woods, James Phillips and Richard Phillip, and later Josiah Wedgwood. Clarkson had campaigned for the movement previously and became the first historian for Britain’s abolition movement; Wedgewood was the 13th son of Thomas Wedgewood and a political reformer involved with the Unitarian Church.


Just a quick glance at the image reveals how pathos-evoking it must have been at the time.  The figure is strong, vital, well-muscled; yet his circumstances have bent him in two, forcing him to beg for the basic rights that should be his due. His wrists are shackled to his ankles; it’s unlikely he’s able to stand up to full height. Even were he not in this unnatural position of supplication, he would not be able to stand as an autonomous agent should be able to do. His facial expression is nearly blank, numbed; but his lips are parted, as if to enunciate the words at the bottom of the image. Like Shylock asking “if you prick us, do we not bleed?” the caption states baldly that what in the distorted current structure of society should be a rhetorical question, is a genuine question because of how warped standards had become. “Am I not a man and a brother?” Is he? Whether or not a black man is human is of course a rhetorical question to the modern reader– but whether it was rhetorical or not would be less evident for the 19th century reader, and would force reflection. The question became the catchphrase of the British and American abolition movements, and the image was widely reproduced. Men purchased snuffboxes with the image; ladies wore bracelets and hairpins. According to David Dabydeen for BBC History, the image became “the most famous image of a black person in all of 18th century art.” In Joseph Hothschild’s book “Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery,” the author argues that “Wedgewood’s kneeling African, the equivalent of the label buttons we wear for electoral campaigns, was probably the first widespread use of a logo designed for a political cause.” This particular image wasn’t just harrowing and politically effective; it was landmark.


Sidiya Hartman notes in her book “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route” that the image is perhaps more insidious than it may at first seem. While it is clear that the figure is on bended knee, she argues that he is less begging God for freedom than the people of Britain, France and America, which, to the modern ancestor of slaves, is far more demoralizing. To ask God for your freedom is one thing; to ask fellow humans is quite another.   The man in the image is begging for freedom, and the image itself begs those who see it to open their minds and hearts.


Other images were used towards the same end as Wedgewood’s, though none were quite as widespread or as effective. In 1792, John Kimber, the captain of the Recovery, was tried for the murder of two female slaves while the ship embarked on the infamous Middle Passage.  While the cause of the captain’s displeasure isn’t clear, we do know that he ordered the girl hoisted up by ship’s rigging by one leg and flogged, with the process repeated on her other leg.  Tragically and unsurprisingly, she died from her injuries.  The image is stark, and disturbing; though in contrast to “Am I,” the image is deliberately and perversely sexualized, intended to provoke certainly, though to what end remains to be seen.


Slavery is a dark and peculiar case in the history of politically motivated imagery; but even as it is atypical (because it was the most severe of causes, because it predates the examples that followed), it is crucial to understanding how to make people understand problems they wish not to see.  The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade didn’t succeed in their goal for Britain until 1833, and for the United States until 1864.  But that goal was in fact ultimately realized; and, in part, due to the ubiquitous image that branded the painful image of the subjection of slavery into the consciousness of those who would have, and could have, otherwise turned a blind eye.







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.