It’s about time: the Smithsonian has chosen its site on the Mall in Washington, D. C. for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC); the design for the building is approved; and the staff is at work on collections and exhibitions. If it all goes according to plan, in 2015 at long last we’ll have a national museum devoted to one of the country’s foundational and enduring experiences: Black history as the American story – a history “for all of us,” promises Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director.
What does it mean to denote a country’s racial past as central to its identity? This issue was on my mind in 2004 when I visited England, my place of birth and formative years, delving into my own experiences of race and looking closely at representations of British racial history in exhibitions and museums. (This was before the flurry of activities marking the bi-centennial of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007.)
My grandparents arrived in Manchester in the 1900s as immigrants from Rumania and Poland, looking for security from pogroms and work in the flourishing textile industry that had emerged a century earlier out of the “triangular trade.” The local economic boom was powered by cotton shipped into the port of nearby Liverpool, then transported to the textile factories in the Manchester area. From the early 1700s to the early 1800s, some 11,000 ships involved in trading slaves for cotton and other commodities left the major ports of Bristol, Liverpool, and London. Liverpool reaped more profits from slaving than any other European port.
For a large chunk of the 19th century, mills and factories made Manchester into the hub of the rag trade and capitalist world. It was here after World War I that my Grandpa Daniels hustled as a small-time dealer in odds and ends, and my Grandpa Platt eked out a meager living as a tailor. And it was here after World War II that my father would make his fortune, mass-producing raincoats for Burton’s (a national clothing chain), and lose it in the 1980s when the industry moved to Asia in search of cheaper labor and newer plants.
As a teenager in the 1950s, I took long walks in Dunham Park, an old estate converted into a public park near our family’s home in an exclusive country village near Manchester. I never stopped to wonder about the incongruous presence of a statue that featured a kneeling African slave, holding up a huge ornamental sundial. I had not been taught about the presence of black servants in England since the sixteenth century or the habit of English traders in the West Indies in the eighteenth century to regularly bring home young slaves as personal servants or gifts. If you look carefully at eighteenth century portraits of the landed gentry, you’ll often find them decorated with young Africans, typically close to the floor, on a par with the family’s pet cats, dogs, and monkeys.
I was reminded of this amnesia when I visited the Cecil Beaton retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton (1904-1980), as the catalogue dogmatically asserts, “was the most significant British-born photographer of the twentieth century.” I remember being attracted in the 1950s to his glossy, glamorous images of the rich and powerful, especially the movie stars, especially the female ones. But his class blinders and pomposity also irritated me then, as they did in the 2004 exhibit, which presented Beaton as a shrine to glorious Englishness. Take, for example, the 1944 photograph of Felicity Wavell – yes, Felicity – the wife of the British Viceroy, sitting in a carriage hauled by four anonymous, shoe-less Indian servants in turbans. Without the slightest hint of irony, the caption reads, “Beaton was impressed by the grandeur and vastness of the Viceroy’s house; the marble corridors and the number of servants in scarlet and gold liveries.”
Also in the exhibit you can find a 1937 photograph of Coco Chanel, one of Beaton’s favorite subjects. She’s posed in an elegant gown, arms folded, leaning against a wall. Close by, but below her, is a pedestal bearing a sculpture of a generic black slave carrying a plant. The flesh-and-blood couturier towers over the ceramic servant, not unlike the relationship between the sundial and anonymous African in Dunham Park that I finally stopped to observe a few years ago.
I grew up in an England that tried to contain most of its subjects over there. The thin strip of sea at the edge of the country’s southern border, The English Channel, kept out “wogs” from the Empire, as well as culturally separated us from “frogs” in France. By the 1960s, British racial anxieties were preoccupied with rebellions in the colonies and the specter of Caribbean, African, and Asian immigration to the core. My grandmother grew up a staunch racist, hating all schwartzes, but never knowing one until the Caribbean cooks at her fancy Jewish retirement home adopted her recipe for chicken soup. The last time that I visited her in 1994, close to her 100th birthday, she called out a cook to meet me and there they stood, the Jamaican and the Jew, arms around each other. On the other hand, my Uncle Phil who moved from Manchester to New York as a young man, stood firm in his hatred of “niggers” and died a bitter old man, his bigotry unblemished.
Thanks to my parents’ politics, I grew up with a sense of moral outrage at racial injustice. Among my mother’s collection of antiques, now displayed on a shelf in my office at home, was an 18th century abolitionist snuff box – or what I thought was a snuff box – decorated with a slave on his knees, in shackles, and the abolitionist motif, AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER. It’s one of my favorite remembrances of my parents because it symbolizes the best of them, the progressive legacy they grafted on to me, the part of their leftist background they didn’t jettison when they climbed the class ladder into the all-white, suburban countryside.
I grew up hating obligatory visits to places like the Victoria and Albert Museum in London because it represented the spoils of empire and arrogance of power, as well as boredom. I was reluctant to visit the V & A in 2004 because of these associations, but did so because I wanted to see if anything had changed. Much had changed, much had not. There was a fabulous retrospective of Vivienne Westwood that takes fashion out of the museum’s traditionally prim and proper displays into a hip happening. How much had things changed at the venerable V & A? Well, Westwood dedicated the catalogue of her exhibit to “freedom for Leonard Peltier.”
But the core exhibit in the British Galleries, at least two floors of rare artifacts that chronicle three centuries of empire, was silent on race. Well, that’s not quite true. The historian Catherine Hall had told me that if I checked out a small room in the V & A, I would find a short film, twelve minutes actually, sandwiched between celebratory videos on country houses and the Crystal Palace. There I found and watched, alone, “Art, Design and Empire,” a politely subversive take on how many icons of British culture are not “originally British at all.” In the most radical segment of a video that mostly espouses a trendy multiculturalism – “we learn from them, they learn from us”– the artist Lubaina Himid discusses how a seemingly typical, 19th century watercolor of an English drawing room conceals “the hidden histories of the Empire.” Embedded in middle-class propriety, she tells us, is the history of violence. “Instead of having, you know, slave servants about the place, we’ll have a lovely piece of fabric or we’ll have a delicate table, so we’ve kind of brought it all in, colonised it, owned it and kind of made it British.”
After watching the video, I trudged through two floors of encased artifacts in the British Galleries at the V & A, reminded why as a teen I disliked having to do this. I didn't see anything on race, but maybe I was missing something. I asked a young woman behind a desk, "Is there anything in the exhibit on the slave trade or the abolitionist movement?" She leaned forward, asked, "Sorry, sir, please?" I repeated the sentence in my best American English. She paused, pretended to mull over the question, smiled slightly. "No, sir, sorry, not that I know of. Sorry."
While the V & A has taken the approach of boring from without and encircling its traditional collections with innovative exhibits, other museums have taken a more direct approach. In the three major slaving ports of London, Liverpool, and Bristol, there are exhibits that deal with the less-than-glorious aspects of British racial history. Just outside London in Greenwich, where the lords of the Empire decided the global rules of time and space, is the National Maritime Museum. Here, if glamorous naval relics or homage to Tintin at sea are not distracting, you can find a small exhibit on “Trade and Empire” that includes artifacts of slavery, a brief account of the abolitionist movement, and a quirky video that draws upon clips of old British movies to satirize colonial racism.
The texts that accompany the exhibit are blandly neutral: “The display looks at the importance of trade in the growth of the British Empire and the vital role the Royal Navy played in developing and protecting that trade. It also shows how imperialism was an important force in world history and how it has influenced the culture of Britain today.” And there are no written materials on the topic to take away from the gift store at Greenwich. Teachers who bring their classes here also need to bring a great deal of background information with them because none is provided. The museum’s guide is silent on race and oblivious to the inclusion of a late seventeenth portrait of an anonymous (probably generic) young black girl, wearing a smile and slave collar of pearls, and looking up adoringly at her fair-skinned mistress, the Duchess of Portsmouth. As in the statue at Dunham Park and Cecil’s Beaton’s photograph of Coco Channel, the experience of slavery becomes a decorative backdrop to British Civilization.
I approached the exhibit in Liverpool with low expectations. It was March and a sharply bitter wind swept off the Mersey and slapped away the protection offered by my winter wool coat. In the remade city center, which sprawls in an endless succession of charmless malls, working class shoppers checked out the bargains and packs of football fans got an early start in the pubs. I knew that Liverpool is an important center of immigration but I saw very few Black people on the streets or in the stores downtown, either selling or buying. A friend, sociologist Joe Sim, gave me a quick lesson in the city’s race relations before taking me to Toxteth, a segregated and run-down neighborhood still bearing the scars of race riots some thirty years ago. Out of sight, out of civic mind.
The next day I walked from the city center to the exhibit. It’s located in a fashionable development by the docks that boasts private flats and condos, upscale restaurants and bars, and a sleek Tate gallery. When I found out that the materials dealing with race are located in the basement of the Maritime Museum, I prepared myself for a theme park designed by Madame Tussaud. But I was wrong. There’s nothing decorative or sentimental in the approach to race that you find in the exhibit on “Transatlantic Slavery.” The subtitle, “Against Human Dignity,” makes clear from the get-go that this will not be an exploration in postmodern ambiguity.
The large exhibition stretches from pre-colonial Africa to the present. It’s informative, with smart captions and a well-written catalogue, expresses an antiracist morality, and names names, including many in high places. Walking through the exhibit, there is no doubt that Liverpudlians flourished off the slave trade and that every leading entrepreneur cashed in on the buying and selling of human beings. The portrait of a mayor of Liverpool hangs formally in a rogues’ gallery of slavery’s benefactors. The exhibit also shows the diversity and complexity of the abolitionist movement, and makes explicit the relationship between slavery and modern forms of racial discrimination. When facts and interpretations are contested – such as how many died during the middle passage or how much slavery impacts today’s race relations – the curators give us both sides of the argument and the responsibility for deciding what we think. And there’s no effort to pretty up the past or to avoid the H word: “this African Holocaust,” notes the catalogue, “involved death and destruction on an unimaginable scale. Its full impact will never be known.”
Some historians might find the exhibit’s intellectual approach too economistic, given its emphasis on the accumulation of wealth as the motor force of racism. But I found it quite refreshing because I live in country where class has magically disappeared from public discourse or, when used, is put in quotes as if to infer that its existence is debated, in much the same way that fundamentalist Christians challenge the teaching of “evolution.”
Some people are no doubt critical also of the separation of the exhibition on race from the mainstream exhibit on maritime history and artifacts: Old ships and sea lore on the main floor, humiliation and degradation in the basement. It’s an old, unresolved argument, and I’ve swung in both directions at different points in my life. Right now, given the resurgence of new forms of racism in England and persistent tendency in the schools to glorify British history, I think it makes moral and political sense to organize a distinct exhibit that demands sustained attention and engagement.
The first part of the Liverpool exhibition offers a relentless exposé of the everyday workings of racism. So it was something of an emotional relief when I came to the section that deals with opposition and resistance. And there in one of the cabinets, unexpectedly, was a perfect example of the snuff box that I inherited from my mother after she died. The caption on the cabinet in the Maritime Museum told me that mum’s collectible was in fact a patch box, made of enamel on copper in South Staffordshire about 1790. This means that more than 220 years ago, another woman, rich enough to buy an expensive doodad – no relation to my mother, whose parents arrived by boat in England in the 1900s fleeing a Roumanian shtetl for a Manchester ghetto – sat in her grand boudoir, opened up this miniature box, and applied a small cloth patch to her face, either as a decoration or to cover a blemish, before heading off in a carriage to a social event. I like to imagine that she and her husband were part of the campaign to abolish slavery in Britain, urging the Royal Navy to patrol the West African coast and stop the slave boats making it across the Atlantic.
The display of the patch box took me by surprise and I dropped my camera, breaking its casing. Maybe because it was here that I recognized the contradictions within my own past: the wealth that trickled down from the slave trade to the rag trade and a belief in the possibility of social equality, both are my legacy, the worst and best of human qualities.
It was a mistake to go to the Liverpool exhibit by myself because this kind of experience needs to be talked about and through. So for my next exploration I searched out a companion and found Derrick Weeden who, luckily, had his own reasons for wanting to see how the Brits tackle, or don’t tackle, the race question. We spent the day together, traveling from Birmingham by train to Bristol, site of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum. Derrick, an actor based in Oregon, was on tour with David Edgar’s two-play cycle about American politics, “Continental Divide.” I was there to visit the playwright in his home city and to see the plays, which I’ve followed like a stage-door Johnny since David conceived them in our home in Berkeley in 1998.
Derrick and I had talked briefly before this outing to Bristol, mostly about “Continental Divide,” but this was the first time that we had spent several hours together, alone, over the best part of a day. We were strangers to each other in most ways. On the train, I told him the story about the patch box and my family history. He told me about his experience going into a pub in Birmingham’s city center, by himself, on a whim. “Everything stopped when I walked in. Just stopped. Not a sound, everybody checking me out.” Perhaps I should mention that Derrick is six feet three, standing erect as he usually does makes him look taller, a sharp dresser, built like the baseball player he used to be in high school days before acting swallowed him up whole. And, oh yes, he’s black. “As black as coal,” as they used to say in England in the 1950s, if they wanted to be polite. Derrick took in the scene in the pub, his antenna processing everything. His mother, originally from the West Indies, and his dad, a lifer in the military from everywhere, including Panama where Derrick was born, had taught him the rules of racial etiquette, how to get in, check it out, and get out if necessary. Derrick decided this time to get out. He left the pub, slowly.
But, mostly, Derrick stays in the thick of things. He’s learned from his parents and his experiences, he told me, that white folks come in several shades and politics, that some can even be trusted. We discovered that we both had our personal reasons for visiting the exhibit on the Empire. Like me, Derrick traces one part of his family to the English heartland and he too is curious about how, in Joan Didion’s words, “history could bloody the land.”
We were both impressed and moved by the exhibit on the Empire. It opens and closes with a variety of everyday people speaking about their experiences of race in Britain. Some praise the country that took them in from homelands they wanted to escape, some curse the day they arrived, some see racism on the retreat, others feel its burning presence every day. There’s no guide or catalogue, but the exhibit is well signed, has several hands-on displays, and is educational without being patronizing. As in the Liverpool exhibition, the approach stresses the economic roots of racism, shows its centrality to British imperialism, and credits the struggles of “nationalists and freedom-fighters in the non-white colonies who fought against colonialism.” The exhibit also takes on more complex issues, such as “the double-edged nature of much of the linguistic and sociological knowledge amassed by Britain in the name of enlightened scholarship.”
Unlike the Liverpool exhibition, the Bristol museum integrates race into its core exhibit. I know, I know, a few paragraphs ago I was singing the praises of separatism. Now I sound like an old-fashioned integrationist. As I said, I can go either way on this issue. To me, the structure and form are less compelling than whether or not the exhibition demonstrates complexity, an ethical point of view, and honesty. It works in Bristol because the curators make race relations central to their presentation of how the British Empire was formed.
But there are losses too: Ireland gets short shrift, a pity since it would be an instructive lesson about the making and unmaking of racial categories. And you have to look closely for information about the gendered aspects of colonialism. Overall, though, I’m glad that youngsters and tourists will get new ways to think about the celebratory history that they’ve learned as a catechism in English schools or imbibed back in the States from Masterpiece Theatre.
Over a shared dessert of sticky toffee pudding at one of the new restaurants by the port in Bristol, looking out at the river that launched slave ships some two hundred years ago, Derrick and I discovered a sorrowful connection. What was most depressing to both of us about the exhibits in England was that we had to travel five thousand miles to find matters of race given serious attention in public institutions. After all, we live in a country that perfected the business of chattel slavery and refuses to even mark emancipation with a public holiday.
Back home in the United States there are museums that deal with the contributions of specific ethnic groups, but what’s absent is any national recognition of the deep wounds and ruptures generated by racism. The Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture promises to shake up our reputation for national amnesia. It took England more than a century since the beginning of its imperial decline to initiate an honest discussion about the legacies of the slave trade. Hopefully, we wont have to wait that long to explore how the past bleeds into the present.