More than 130 years after the abolition of slavery in the United States, a debate is raging about the commodification of slavery history: Who owns the slavery story, and who has the right to tell it? These are timely questions. Several American museums recounting the legacy of slavery are currently in the works, including the National Slavery Museum in Fredricksburg, Va., tentatively scheduled to open in 2007. Other, smaller museums are also planned for Charleston, S.C., Mobile, Ala., and Philadelphia, Pa.
Over the course of 400 years, approximately thirteen million Africans made the Middle Passage to the New World to be sold as slaves. A burgeoning slavery tourism industry has recently emerged as part of that legacy. J. Martin Favor believes the growing interest in slavery history sites is more than a macabre fascination; instead he thinks it signals a new era in which Americans can discuss slavery with more complexity.
"The legacy of slavery is central to U.S. history, but for a long time we were in denial because we didn't know how to deal with it," says Favor, who is writing a book that compares how African slavery is commemorated in some of the regions that profited from it, particularly Ghana in West Africa, Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, and Maryland and Virginia in the United States.
"We have a cultural image of slavery as something degraded, debased, and subhuman," he says. "Do we really want to memorialize it? And if we do, how do we talk about it? How do we depict it? Do we represent the fact that there were black slave owners? When do we say that slavery started? Some of the first Africans who came to America in 1619 were actually indentured servants. Chattel slavery didn't become racialized and popularized in the way that is recognizable to us today until the 1660s, when the Europeans realized that white indentured servants weren't really working out. They could just disappear and hide among the other whites. In historical context, slavery is quite complicated."
"Facts don't speak for themselves. They mean nothing outside of the way you narrate them," he says. For example, while the living history museum at Colonial Williamsburg offers programs related to African-American life in the eighteenth century, Favor believes that it doesn't convey how tightly slavery was woven into the fabric of daily life. "Williamsburg actually had a sixty percent African population in 1766," the year the museum reflects, says Favor, who notes that most, but not all of the individuals in that population would have been slaves. Wandering around the town today, however, visitors wouldn't have any idea that this was the case because most of the re-enactors are white.
Favor's trips to African and Caribbean slavery sites also demonstrate how strong a role culture plays in perceptions of history. In Ghana, he visited coastal forts that once imprisoned Africans bound for New World slavery. These so-called slave castles have undergone restoration and are now major tourist stops, particularly for European vacationers. Although far removed from the sites physically, some African Americans have deplored these museums, claiming that they commercialize-and presumably diminish-sites important to their history.
"We talk about the African slave trade and its legacy as if it's sacred property. That's problematic because we like to think that things that are sacred shouldn't be commodified. There is a parallel here to the story in the New Testament about the money lenders in the temple, where the destruction is an attempt to disguise the way the secular and the sacred are combined," Favor says.
Ghanaians, however, have other, more immediate concerns.
"They don't have the same relationship with these sites that African Americans have because they weren't slaves," Favor says. Instead, the slave castles are primarily symbols of economic opportunity to Ghanaians, just as they were hundreds of years ago. Today, they profit from tourism, not the trade in human flesh. Also, contrary to what is sometimes assumed, the Ghanaians do not identify with contemporary African Americans who visit the sites on the basis of race, but instead feel distinct from them by virtue of economic differences.
"This raises interesting issues about African solidarity and pan-Africanism," Favor says. "We're trying to universalize ideas that we construct from the African-American experience, but what we have naturalized as 'black' experience is not really shared. Implicit in the idea of pan-Africanism is the idea that there is a singular black experience. But there's not," Favor says.
On the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago, remnants of slavery have almost disappeared. The only historical reference to slavery that Favor found was in a restored eighteenth-century sugar plantation called the Richmond Great House which mentions slave life in its materials. According to Favor, this exception is notable because the house is owned by an American academic, not by a native of the island.
"This is a culture rooted in the here and now. It made me wonder how you commemorate something from the past if you're part of a culture that is very much in the present," he said. Interestingly, after the British Empire abolished slavery, plantation owners brought in indentured servants, a large proportion of whom were from India, to take the place of the former slaves. In Trinidad, a holiday previously known as "Indian Arrival Day" (which commemorates the arrival of the Indian indentured servants to the island) has been changed to simply "Arrival Day" to incorporate the memory of African arrival as well.
"What's interesting about that switch is the attempt to claim or establish a public memory of a historical past," Favor says. "The fight over the past is, in many ways, an attempt to negotiate our contemporary ideas about group and race relations."
"In a way, I think this movement to commemorate slavery is a last-gasp effort before we move beyond black and white. When you put something in a museum, you're putting it in the past. But you're doing it in such a way that it's always available in the present moment as well," he says.
Favor hopes that the new slave museums will avoid over-simplifying the complex issues surrounding slavery and instead "revel in their complexity." Instead of trying to provide neatly packaged answers, he would like to see museums attempt to provoke even more questions in the minds of visitors.
"Museums try to present narratives with a clear beginning, middle, and end, but that just doesn't work with slavery," he says.