May 14, 2018
This is a continuation of a review from the previous issue of the SPARK which dealt with the transAtlantic slave trade.
The museum also shows the horrors of slavery, from the kidnapping, storing, inspecting, branding and transporting to the selling of those who managed to survive to that point (more than half did not survive). It shows what their lives were like once sold into slavery, like a 7-year life expectancy on sugar plantations, for example. And it also shows how enslaved people resisted and fought back.
The museum covers the history of resistance which goes from the time of slavery to Black Lives Matter. The resistance of black people to slavery, and to their continued oppression after slavery, shows many interesting things. For instance, it shows how many of the struggles and fights pulled in other people, particularly poor and working class white people who had every reason to fight alongside.
Many lesser known rebellions are discussed. In 1741, enslaved Africans and poor whites joined forces in a rebellion known as the New York Conspiracy. They plotted to burn New York City and kill wealthy white men and elect a new king and governor. The rebels set fires across the city. More than a hundred people were involved.
An earlier rebellion – Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 – also involved enslaved black people and poor white workers. It was against the governor of Virginia.
The largest pre-American Revolutionary War uprising was the Stono Rebellion in 1739. Nearly 100 enslaved men and women beat drums and marched in unison under a banner marked “Liberty!” while they chanted the same word in Kongolese: “Lukango!” Deslondes’ Rebellion of 1811 was interesting because not only did it involve more than one hundred enslaved Africans marching on New Orleans, but because Haitians were also among Deslondes’ comrades – Haitians who had lived through a successful slave uprising in 1804.
Another interesting pattern emerges as you go through the museum. After each war (U.S. history can also be seen as a history of wars), black soldiers returned and protested their oppression. “We can carry a gun for Uncle Sam, but we have no rights here.” Black people didn’t just fight during the modern Civil Rights movement. They fought all along the way.
The museum pays special attention to how the brutal murder of Emmett Till, and his mother’s bravery in letting the whole world see what happened to her son, reverberates in the modern Civil Rights movement.
If after going through three floors and 600 years of history, if there is still any time left, go to the 3rd and 4th floors above ground and take a peek at the sports section and the arts (music, dance, film, TV, paintings) respectively. Of course, hours could be spent on these two floors as well.
The museum is powerful, interesting and thought-provoking, showing how the transAtlantic slave trade changed the world and how the U.S. began in that context. It shows how ordinary people changed history. This museum is for everyone. James Baldwin put it this way in a quote on one of the museum’s walls: “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it. History is literally present in all that we do.”