In a famous interview of 1989, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison pointed out that her book Beloved (1987) was a site of memory of slavery as sites of the slave trade like New York City and Charleston were not at all highlighted in the landscape of the United States. Since 1989, this situation dramatically changed. The end of the Cold War benefited subaltern groups who now could assert their own identities. Also, the year 1992, marking the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas encouraged the discussion about the importance of the Atlantic slave trade in the construction of the Americas. Probably one of the most important initiatives derived from this new interest was the development of the Slave Route Project, launched by UNESCO in 1994.
In the United States, one of the first projects underscoring the country’s slave past was the traveling exhibit Back of the Big House curated by John Michael Vlach. Unveiled in 1995 at the Library of Congress, the exhibition generated controversy and was shut down some days later. This was only one indicator of how difficult is to address the slave past in the United States. If other initiatives were developed over the next years, and this includes the discovery of what would become known as the African Burial Ground in New York City, it was after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, that the largest number of initiatives underscoring the importance of slavery in the history of the United States emerged. Several of these initiatives were developed in Washington DC. But in the US South, the development of these projects was not (and still today is not) easy, as local groups often oppose or resist these projects intended to memorialize slavery and the Atlantic slave trade.
As I discuss in the third chapter “Places of Disembarkation” of my new book Shadows of the Slave Past: Memory, Heritage, and Slavery, it took almost two centuries for Jamestown to timidly recognize the site as the place where the first Africans were disembarked in the United States, and to gradually acknowledge this fact in the several public initiatives developed in the area. A similar situation occurred in Charleston, South Carolina, the port where the largest number of enslaved Africans brought to the United States disembarked, which I also discuss in my new book. Unlike Salvador and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, which together imported more than 2 million Africans, Charleston imported about 150,000 enslaved Africans, about 40 percent of the total US slave imports. After the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade to the United States in 1808, the city continued to be an important point of the internal trade as well.Also a tourist destination, Charleston’s population, estimated at 122,000, is much smaller than the populations of Rio de Janeiro (about 6 million) and Salvador (approximately 2.6 million). Despite these elements, like other slave ports, Charleston has avoided to highlight its slave past, a situation that started to change in the 1990s, including a number of initiatives like the attempts to create a monument to honor Denmark Vesey. Until then, the Gadsden’s Wharf was not at all highlighted as the site of arrival of enslaved Africans, but some initiatives were developed in the Sullivan’s Island where they were put into quarantine. In 2008, as part of the project a “bench by the road” (launched two years before) by Toni Morrison, a bench was unveiled in Charleston.
It was then a nice surprise to see in the news that the plans to construct a new International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, the major slave port in the United States, are now progressing fast. The funds to develop the project are still being raised and few details about the project were released. It is important though to understand that the creation of such museum is the result of a broader process that started several years ago at the international level in other former slave ports (Liverpool, Bristol, Nantes, Bordeaux, New York City, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador), and that already had important repercussions in Charleston.
According to the news released, the new museum is being announced as the most important in the country, even though it is going to be created after the unveiling of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC (planned to be opened in 2015). One of the elements justifying the importance of Charleston’s new museum is that the institution will occupy the very heritage site of arrival of enslaved Africans in Charleston, the Gadsden’s Wharf. Curiously, the authorities refer to the “discovery” of the site, but the site is well known and up to these days nothing was done to highlight it, to the point that part of the land was sold to a family who plans to build a restaurant in the site ! But here too, there is nothing new, as all over the Americas, many sites where Africans were disembarked were now transformed into expensive condos and fancy restaurants that do not contain any reference to the tragic history of the Atlantic slave trade.
Also according to the news, the new museum will be designed by Ralph Appelbaum, the same company that designed the exhibits of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and the new Visitor Center of the US Capitol (that also honors former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth). Although the initiative is certainly important, several questions remain unanswered. What is the role of the African Americans of Charleston in the planning of the new museum? What will be the place of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade in the museum, considering that there is no slavery museum in the United States? Finally, there are also two other important questions: What are the implications of the fact that the same company is designing monuments commemorating slavery and the Holocaust? What are the impacts resulting from the fact that the same company is designing different exhibitions on slavery-related issues? In other words, as slavery is officially recognized and memorialized in the public space does this also mean that this memory is being controlled and that the multiple voices that characterize this memory are ultimately being silenced or at least losing their diversity?