Arts & Culture

Fighting for the right to remember

Fighting for the right to remember
  • PublishedDecember 27, 2016

More museums and sites dedicated to the memory of slavery are being created, but they’re igniting debate, as Alecia McKenzie and Claire Oberon Garcia report.

It’s 1965, and a young AfricanAmerican fifth grader is on a school trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, a meticulously restored living museum that preserves the lives, work, traditions and institutions of one of the original settlements in the US. The daughter of civil rights activists, the student knows that the English colony depended upon the labour of enslaved Africans, but when she gets to the city, with its tidy brick buildings, manicured lawns and lace-ruffled actors portraying the daily lives of early citizens, she sees no trace of black people. There are no slave quarters with original furniture, no black actors ploughing the fields, caring for their own and others’ children, going to church or cleaning kitchens, although African-descended people made up 50% of the region’s population at the time colonial Williamsburg depicts. Fifty years later, on a return trip, the former student sees a few changes: there are slave quarters, a reconstruction of a black teacher’s classroom, and acknowledgment of the importance of black work and creativity to the emergent American society. But how to depict the role of slavery in American history narratives is still controversial: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had march protested the re-enactment of a slave auction on the site, and it is still difficult to hire black actors to play the role of slaves in the living museum.

While many in Virginia, and around the globe, have since realised that the enslavement of Africans created much of the “wealth” of the modern world and that slavery’s legacy continues to affect racial relations on both sides of the Atlantic, alongside the push to remember is an opposing keenness to forget.

Museums dedicated to slavery are meanwhile adding fuel to the debate about how history should be memorialised. The creation of the Arab world’s first museum dedicated to slavery, set to open this year in Qatar, and new and recent institutions elsewhere are intensifying the “remembrance” discussion in various countries, particularly in the Americas.

The creation of the US’s first real museum on slavery – the Whitney Plantation near Wallace, Louisiana – has raised numerous questions about how to “present” the history of slavery and the slave trade, from whose perspective this should be done, and also, why it took so long for the US to have such a museum.

While the exhibits at Williamsburg now include detailed information, performances, and commemorations, until recently there had not been a museum in the US focused on the experiences and contributions of the enslaved. Scheduled to open in Washington DC, this year, however, is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Its management says it “will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African-American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation”.

But there is disagreement both within and outside AfricanAmerican communities on how much of a role slavery should play in the exhibitions. It is rather ironic, then, that the Whitney Plantation, the first US museum dedicated to educating current and future generations about slavery, has been brought to fruition by a white millionaire lawyer whose family had no direct ties to the slave trade or slaver y.

John Cummings has spent more than $16m creating a museum organised around the experiences and perspectives of enslaved Africans. The museum says that it strives to be “a site of memory and consciousness … meant to pay homage to all slaves on the plantation itself and to all of those who lived elsewhere in the US South.”

Ashley Rogers, the Whitney Plantation’s Director of Museum Operations, says that the museum is a “rare place” where conversations about difficult topics – race, identity, slavery, oppression – are welcome and encouraged.

New Orleans was once the largest slave market in the US. The plantations along River Road like the Whitney produced enormous wealth on the backs of enslaved labourers. Despite the importance of slavery to the city and the region’s history, visitors can come and not see anything that explicitly discusses the role that enslavement played in its development,” she told New African.

Mannequins of slave children at the Whitney Plantation Museum

Opened to the public in 2014, the Whitney Plantation features a blend of memorials and educational exhibits. Although the original slave cabins were razed decades ago, the curators, led by the Senegalese historian Dr Ibrahima Seck, brought slave cabins from nearby plantations and restored them.

The plantation features at least 12 historic outbuildings that contain exhibits about various aspects of the relationships, work, and daily lives of the enslaved people as well as general information about the Atlantic slave trade and the region’s slave history. “The Field of Angels” memorialises 2,200 enslaved Louisiana children who died before their first birthdays.

A “Wall of Honour” etches into history the names, occupations and any other information the curators could piece together of those who lived, laboured, and died under chattel slavery.


Europe’s recognition of its slavetrading past has not resulted in an abundance of memorial sites: the few museums devoted to remembering the four-centurieslong slave trade have mainly been established over the past decade. The most well-known is probably the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England, which is part of the city’s Maritime Museum. It will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year, and its location is appropriate because Liverpool was the leading slavery port in a country that had the highest slave trade activity, says Dr Richard Huzzey, a historian and senior lecturer in the University of Liverpool’s history department. “The town was quite small until the 17th and 18th centuries when its role as a port expanded rapidly, and it became, in the middle of the 18th century, the leading city taking part in the slave trade for Britain, at a point when Britain was the leading slave-trade nation in the world,” Huzzey told New African. “Some people have commented that Liverpool, and all its beautiful buildings, had been built with the blood of enslaved Africans because merchants in the city invested in slaving voyages, and it was an important part of the city’s economy.”

Even after Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, Liverpool continued to benefit from commerce in goods produced by slaves in the Americas.

Liverpool continued to get very rich because it was the port through which cotton farmed by enslaved Africans in the US was brought into Britain to be processed in the industrial factory mills of Lancashire,” said Huzzey, who is also a former co-director for the Centre for the Study of International Slavery, a joint enterprise between the International Slavery Museum and the University of Liverpool. “Britain had a contract that allowed British slave traders to sell to the Spanish Empire – so Britain was the leading slave trading country and Liverpool the leading slave trading port,” he added.

Many of the city’s streets still bear the names of rich merchants from this period, a fact that naturally causes controversy. “If Liverpool had only been involved in the transatlantic slave trade it would be a clear reason for the importance of addressing the city’s history through the museum, but then there are so many other different angles as well,” Huzzey says.

Many museums find it difficult to address these wide-ranging concerns, but some have chosen a particular approach. Dr David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool, which includes the International Slavery Museum, says that such institutions have a role in both safeguarding memory and promoting human rights.

Social justice just doesn’t happen by itself; it’s about activism and people willing to take risks,” Fleming said during a speech at a 2015 meeting organised by the Collegium for African-American Research (CAAR) and a new UKbased body called the Institute for Black Atlantic Research (IBAR).

The International Slavery Museum presents aspects of both historical and contemporary slavery, while being an “international hub for resources on human rights issues”, according to its directors. For instance, it puts on temporary exhibitions such as the current “Broken Lives”, which runs until December 2016 and focuses on the victims of global modern-day slavery – half of whom are said to be in India, and most of whom are Dalits, or people formerly known as “untouchables”.

But it is the permanent section, devoted to the atrocities of the transatlantic slave trade and the legacy of racism, for which the museum is most known. The exhibits include historical facts about the Middle Passage, slave uprisings and the biographies of fighters such as Nanny of the Maroons, who led acts of resistance in Jamaica and who is one of the Caribbean island’s seven “National Heroes”. The museum also presents a series of striking testimonies from people of African descent, describing how racism has affected their lives, and it draws attention to the fact that Liverpool has the longest continuous presence of African-descended people in Britain – some of whom trace their ancestry to the 18th century.

Liverpool’s town council issued a controversial apology in 1999 for the city’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, but many in the region have resisted too close an examination of this history (preferring the town to be known as the home of the Beatles). The museum itself has experienced attacks, such as swastikas being painted on its outer walls, and conversely, it has also sparked questions among the people whose history it is purportedly displaying.

During the CAAR conference, for instance, several AfricanAmerican visitors criticised certain displays, wondering about the intended audience, and who had selected the exhibits. Some said that a section that showed famous individuals of African descent seemed superficial in its glossy presentation of people such as US talk-show host Oprah Winfrey and well-known musicians and athletes.

Fleming said that museums often face disapproval for both going too far, and not going “far enough”. But taking a disinterested stand does not seem to be the answer, as “the world is full of ‘faux-neutral’ museums”, he said. He and other scholars stress that they are deeply conscious of who is doing the “storytelling” of history, and this is an issue that also affects museums.

Ali Moussa Iye, chief of the History and Memory for Dialogue Section of Unesco, the UN’s cultural agency, told New African that his organisation has “always believed that the perspective from which you’re telling the history is as important as the history itself ”.

We believe that the experts, the historians, should consult with the communities around the area,” he added, after commenting that he’d personally found the Liverpool museum to be quite effective. “We advise a more participative way of drafting and elaborating the narrative that should be in museums and around the sites of memory.”

Moussa Iye directs Unesco’s Slave Route Project, which was formed nearly 22 years ago and which pushes for greater education about slavery and the slave trade in schools around the world and in public spaces. The project was one of the forces behind a permanent memorial to slavery that was completed last year at UN headquarters in New York, to honour the millions of victims of the traffic in humans. UNESCO is equally involved in the UN’s International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), which is aimed at recognising people of African descent as a distinct group and at “addressing the historical and continuing violations of their rights”.

“People of all kinds suffered from slavery and people of all kinds profited from slavery just like so many people are now profiting from modern-day slavery,” Moussa Iye says. “Racism is a direct result of this monstrous heritage and we need to increase the dialogue about this.”

According to Unesco, the Slave Route Project has put these issues on the international agenda by contributing to the recognition of slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity, a declaration made at the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.

Moussa Iye said that Unesco encourages “countries that have been marked by the tragedy of slavery to create museums dedicated to slavery”, and he affirmed that for the Slave Route Project, it was “very important to demonstrate the centrality, the economic importance” of the slave trade and slavery for the colonial system.

In Europe, this economic aspect is an important part of the fight to remember. Like Liverpool, French cities such as Bordeaux and Nantes grew rich from the trafficking in humans and from the fruits of their labour. But, for a long time, this history was not acknowledged. It was only in 2009 that city officials in Bordeaux, famous for its wine and grand architecture, established a permanent and comprehensive display at the Musée d’Aquitaine that is titled “Bordeaux, TransAtlantic Trading and Slavery”.

Mayor Alain Juppé, who presided over the opening, said that the Liverpool museum had provided a “vital source of inspiration” for Bordeaux’s museum. But the realisation of the space came after years of activism by a local group that was founded and directed by a Senegalese-born resident of the city, Karfa Diallo.

The exhibits at the Musée d’Aquitaine are presented from a historical perspective, giving dispassionate information about the atrocities of the slave trade. As visitors view a sketch of a slave ship’s hold, with its stacked human cargo, they are given this information on a panel as well:

The crossing of the Atlantic was the most tragic part of the slaving voyage. Tightly packed in between decks, at a rate of 1 or 2 men per registered ton, in chains most of the time to discourage riots, the men’s living conditions resembled those of a foul prison cell. The women and children were confined in cargo holds at the stern of the ship. They were frequently subject to rape or sexual abuse by the sailors. Disease (dysentery, scurvy), suicide and the violent repression of any sign of revolt resulted in high mortality rates: 25% of embarked captives at the beginning of the 17th century, falling to 11% at the end of the 18th century, and rising again to 15% after 1815. An estimated 1.7 million Africans did not survive the passage. Taking the whole of the triangular circuit into account, mortality rates among the sailors, who fell victim to tropical diseases or epidemics on board ship, were similarly high.

The overall thrust of the exhibition is the role that the town played in the trade, sending out some 500 ships and providing planters or settlers for the lands in the Americas. The Caribbean was in fact Bordeaux’s El Dorado. A panel at the Musée d’Aquitaine tells visitors that the “sugar islands” of the Caribbean (Martinique, Guadeloupe and French SaintDomingue) ensured the prosperity of 18th-century Bordeaux and the Aquitaine region of south-western France.

The transatlantic trade thus connected the economies of three continents, with the global deportation of between 25 to 30 million people from their homelands in Africa. In addition to Bordeaux, the French port of Nantes was a major participant in this commerce which was led by England, France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. Historians estimate that 40% of France’s slave trade was conducted through Nantes’ port, which acted as a transshipment point for some 450,000 Africans. But this part of Nantes’ history was kept relatively hidden for years until the move to “break the silence” culminated in the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery, opened in 2012.

Twenty-five years prior to this date, however, there had been the launch of exhibits in a few rooms of the city’s municipal museum. City leaders and some of the descendants of the “negociants” – merchants who became fabulously wealthy from the slave trade – had initially resisted associating the contemporary city with a brutal past. Royal edicts ensured the integrity of the French Atlantic Triangle, with the result that enslaved Africans were much cheaper in French territories than anywhere else in the world. The sheer volume of the movement of human beings in the triangle made them more expendable. In a New York Times article from December 1993, when the first galleries devoted to the slave trade were opened to the public, curator Marie Helene Juzeau was quoted as saying, “This project had a hard time starting. It seemed too sensitive, too difficult.”

A declaration by France’s parliament in 2001 that slavery is a crime against humanity (though language in the original proposal explicitly acknowledging French responsibility was removed before the final vote), and former President Jacques Chirac’s creation of a national day of memory in 2006 have led French national and municipal governments to embark on a campaign that takes various forms to integrate slavery and its legacy into French history. Until recently, slavery didn’t appear in French history books, and colonialism was presented as giving unenlightened peoples the benefits of French language and culture. Now there is a National Committee for the Memory and History of Slavery.

Nantes’ efforts to educate and commemorate have extended beyond a growing number of galleries in the castle to the streets and public spaces of the city. Historical plaques and markers in the streets link evidence of the city’s wealth to the profits of the “traite négrière.” For example, a sign before an elegant mansion identifies it as once belonging to a family who were “beneficiaries of the Atlantic slave trade”.

Tourists can also follow a walking tour to the commemorative capstone, the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery. The Memorial links the French experience of slavery to present exploitation and injustice across the world. The visitor approaches it by a walkway that leads from the Department of Justice (all glass, to symbolise the transparency of the law) from a bridge named after the French abolitionist, Victor Schoelcher. Embedded in the pavement are the names of the 1,790 slave ships and the dates that they set sail from Nantes: they had names like La Gloire (Glor y), La République (The Republic), and Le Plaisir (Pleasure). The memorial itself includes translations of the word “freedom” in over 50 languages of populations affected by the slave trade, and a timeline of the abolition of slavery throughout the world.


In the Caribbean, a site of memory was opened in May 2015 with Guadeloupe’s Mémorial ACTe (the Caribbean centre for the expression and memory of slavery and the slave trade). Built overlooking the Pointe-à-Pitre bay, with architecture that’s unique in the region, the Centre aims to be a place devoted to “collective memory”, opened to the “contemporary world”.

In addition to being the history of Guadeloupians and residents of the Caribbean, the “history of slavery and the trade in black people concerns all of humanity”, the directors say, and the Centre is one attempt to heal historical wounds.

The Mémorial ACTe offers visitors the chance to learn about all aspects of the global slave trade, to do personal genealogical research, and to see artistic and historical depictions of the lives of the enslaved, among other exhibits. When it was inaugurated last May by French President François Hollande (alongside the president of the Guadeloupe regional council Victorin Lurel), also in attendance was then Justice Minister Christiane Taubira – the main force behind the 2001 French law recognising the Atlantic slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity. As a politician of African descent, Guiana-born Taubira has been the target of racist depictions on social media and in certain publications in France, and she has spoken out about the legacy of slavery. “We cannot accept this kind of inhumanity,” she said in one of her memorable speeches, adding that the “anonymous victims” of slavery were not just victims but “survivors, creators, artists, cultural guides … and resistors”, despite the immense violence they suffered.

A view of the Memorial ACTe, the Caribbean Centre of Expression and Memory of Slavery and the Slave Trade, in Point-àPitre, Guadeloupe.

In Martinique, La Savane des Esclaves owes its existence to the vision of one man, as with the Whitney Plantation. In 2000, Gilbert Larose started building with his own funds a meticulous recreation of a slave community as it would have appeared around 1800 “to bear witness to, teach, and preserve” the heritage of enslaved people in Martinique.

Spread over two hectares, the grounds include an exhibit on slavery in the Antilles as well as furnished houses, gardens, and information about social, economic and spiritual life. The houses 

are constructed with authentic materials and techniques, such as roofs of cane leaves and woven wood and the gardens planted with the food that sustained the workers. La Savane attracts some 10,000 visitors a year, who learn about the creativity and resourcefulness of the people.

While all these museums have a clear educational role in addition to being sites of remembrance, they need to be inclusive (especially of the local African-descended populations) if they are to help in achieving better co-existence among people, say some historians. They also need to be part of a broader, perhaps international, context, according to Dr Jessica Moody, a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth in England and the author of a forthcoming book, entitled Slavery and Memory in Liverpool.

We’re all implicated in this history in various ways,” Moody said in an interview. “Europe benefited from the exploitation of enslaved African people in real, tangible ways. To have the kind of life, resources and wealth that we have now is because of what happened. And there are longerterm legacies of this history that impact on people today, and we need to recognise that, face that … There are some good initiatives, but a concern is that it’s all too piecemeal. When we talk about recognising this history, it needs to be permanent and international. More global networks might be the way forward.”

Other museums or permanent exhibitions devoted to the memory of slavery exist in Brazil, Cuba, Nigeria, Senegal and a few other countries. 

@mckenzie_ale is a writer and journalist based in Paris, France. Her award-winning novel Sweetheart will appear in French translation this year. Claire Oberon Garcia is a professor of English and the director of Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies at Colorado College, US. The two writers are currently working on a multi-media project about sites of memory.


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New African

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