Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Why We Need A Museum Of Slavery In The United States

If you've been following along with this blog for any amount of time, you've surely noticed that the institution of slavery and its ramifications are frequently addressed. There is no single issue in our nation's history since the 18th century that had as intense an effect and more profound and lasting aftereffect that the "peculiar institution". It brought about a civil war that cost 600,000+ lives and demolished the southern United States, it cast a segment of our melting pot into the role of pariah, and it continues to confuse and poison race relations today.
It is this same size and scope that makes it so difficult for us to come to terms with it, to acknowledge it and say it happened, it was a horrible tragedy, how do we make it something to learn from and move beyond?
So I'd like to repeat an exercise I've employed before. Take a moment and think about how you learned about slavery in America. What was the tone presented by your educator? What perceptions did you take away? What books, artworks, movies, etc were used in the process?
If your primary education on the subject was anything like mine, it received a cold treatment, one devoid of responsibility or healing. There was nothing tangible, nothing to look at to bring home the enormity of what occurred, no way to acknowledge how it lingers in our communities today.
This sort of education makes it difficult to come to grips with issues of race in our country, because the single biggest cause of division remains ethereal and a void remains. To provide thorough understanding and tangible acknowledgment, we need a museum of slavery. We need a place to archive and present the infrastructure of slavery, a space to lecture and learn, a chance not only to read, but to sense.
I can give a personal attestation to the importance of such an undertaking. As a Jew, a large part of my religious education was learning about the Holocaust and trying to understand what it means to the Jewish community. Not until I visited The Holocaust Museum, however, did I understand the enormity of this tragedy. It takes this sort of visual, auditory, and emotional immersion to bring such complex events into focus.
So I was well-pleased to learn that The United States Museum of Slavery is under development in Fredericksburg, VA. Spread over 38 acres, the museum will have over 100,000 square feet of exhibition and lecture space. As I perused the website, I noticed that there was no published date of opening available. Financial support and development of the museum seem to be bogging down in multiple issues with, in an ironic and unsurprising twist, race and perception of slavery near the forefront.
The difficulties in getting this museum off the ground underscore exactly why it is needed. The void in our understanding continues to trip us up as a society, and this museum would be a huge step in the right direction. There is an excellent article from the NY Times working through the museum's history and battle to get it off the ground, don't miss the slideshow that goes with it.

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