SLAVERY'S HARSH HISTORY IS PORTRAYED IN PROMISED LAND
BY EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
August 18, 2004 Wednesday Late Edition - Final
Gaze out the southern windows of the National Underground
Railroad Freedom Center and it is easy to see why this new museum
devoted to slavery and resistance has found such a resonant home
here. A suspension bridge -- John A. Roebling's rococo prelude to
his Brooklyn Bridge -- stretches away from the museum, spanning the
Ohio River. On the bridge's far side, in Kentucky, human beings were
once owned and inherited, bought and sold. But on this spot in Ohio,
now inside the curved walls of the handsome buildings whose shape
echoes the river's meanderings, those same slaves would have been
free. Before the Civil War, the Ohio River marked the borderland
dividing the Southern slave states from the North. The Ohio was, in
song and lore, the Jordan; across it lay the Promised Land.
That promised land is where the museum stands. One achievements
of this center through much of its three floors of film, activity
and exhibition is to maintain the reach of the bridge, touching the
darkness of what once was and the light that might yet be. The
center's chief architect was Walter Blackburn, the grandson of
slaves. The center's exhibits also promise ''to promote an
understanding of the horrors of slavery, the active resistance
movements, and the achievement of freedom against the odds.'' And
despite some problems in their conception, they do: slavery's evil
becomes palpable; so does a sense of progressive enlightenment.
On the museum's second floor, for example, is its central
exhibit: a 19th-century slave pen, moved from a nearby Kentucky
farm, whose rough-hewn walls once held human chattel. It functioned
as a 20-foot-by-30-foot warehouse, in which live human merchandise
would be stored until it could be sold at a profit. Next to the pen
is a list of its former owner's possessions, which included 32
slaves, like ''one Negro child, Matilda'' (value: $200), along with
a kitchen cupboard and a copper kettle.
Yet the harshness of the slave pen also gives way to something
more uplifting. The film ''Brothers of the Borderland,'' introduced
by Oprah Winfrey and shown in a surround-sound theater, is a tale of
interracial redemption: a white minister and a free black man join
forces to help a slave escape.
Enslavement and liberation: those are the museum's recurring
juxtapositions, accomplished even with its slim collection. Finding
balance between these main poles is no mean feat in a subject as
vexed as American slavery.
This does not mean the museum is free of missteps. There is, for
example, too much interference with the spare effect of the slave
pen, which now includes an intrusive wooden slab, inscribed with
ineffectual verse. Other matters are too overwrought, like the
labels for the museum buildings: ''Pavilion of Courage '' and
''Pavilion of Perseverance.'' There are also more serious problems
as the museum's suggested exhibition path leads toward the modern
Such problems are worth examining closely, if only because of
the museum's importance. Its executive director is Spencer R. Crew,
formerly director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum
of American History. It had already raised more than $102 million
before opening earlier this month. And its influence is expected to
be significant, with at least 25 African-American cultural buildings
planned across the United States, including the National Museum of
African-American History and Culture in Washington and the Museum of
the African Diaspora in San Francisco.
Here the balance that is the museum's greatest virtue may also
be associated with its greatest flaw. The museum's notion seems to
be that everything must ultimately offer an entertaining and
inspirational lesson. As a result, the subject's darkness becomes
fairly uniform; so does the quality of the light. It can seem as if
the center were endorsing a new pop political culture: not the
culture of identity and pride, nor the culture of anger and
restitution, but a political culture of therapeutic activism.
According to the center's mission statement, for example, its
stories are meant to illustrate ''courage, cooperation and
perseverance in the pursuit of freedom.'' The center is meant to
''encourage every individual to take a journey that advances freedom
and personal growth.'' Mr. Crew writes, ''We hope to inspire similar
efforts on behalf of freedom in the modern-day world,'' an effort to
which half the third floor is devoted.
The Underground Railroad, this museum's primary focus, is put in
service to that vision. In recent years the Underground Railroad --
the networks of safe houses and guides that helped slaves escape
north (40 percent of them crossing the Ohio) -- has spurred a
renaissance of scholarly and popular interest, with its portrayal of
the races bound in a single liberatory project. It provided a great
healing metaphor for the American psyche, and it is meant to do that
duty here as well. The Underground Railroad knit the races together
in a single project, white abolitionists working alongside free
blacks and fleeing slaves. In conjunction with Smithsonian Books,
the center is even publishing a richly illustrated anthology edited
by the historian David W. Blight: ''Passages to Freedom: The
Underground Railroad in History and Memory.'' Many of the exhibits,
even those for younger children, are informed by this scholarship.
Yet in its emphasis on activism, the center regularly taps at
the same time into melodrama and myth. In the film ''Brothers of the
Borderland,'' for example, the fleeing slaves are set upon by
drooling hounds and drawling slave hunters. Elsewhere, organized
resistance is stressed and codes and hiding places described, even
though many scholars, some in the center's own book, point out that
such conceptions were largely overturned by a 1961 classic, ''The
Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad,'' by Larry
Gara (reissued in 1996, University Press of Kentucky).
Later scholarship has modified points and emphases, but the
force of Mr. Gara's argument remains. Much that is assumed about the
Underground Railroad, he argued, is more folklore than fact. After
Emancipation, for example, whites wanted to exaggerate the
accomplishments of the Underground Railroad; before Emancipation,
slave owners wanted to exaggerate its threat. But there is no
evidence, Mr. Gara insisted, of a systematically organized
enterprise. The numbers of escaped slaves were fewer than believed.
And the slaves were hardly passive fugitives helped by heroic
whites. Nor, Mr. Gara argued, was the Railroad centrally important
in overturning slavery.
In the center's exhibits, the slaves may not be passive but many
of the old myths have been resurrected without a hint of
qualification. The theme of political liberation overshadows nuance.
The result is almost the opposite of what we expect from a classical
museum: specificity is filtered away.
Then comes another twist: the ultimate point is to spur
political action. So on the third floor, after a sober, heavily
textual history of slavery, comes the Hall of Everyday Freedom
Heroes, which offers portraits of heroes, some of whom are linked to
African-American history in its long struggles: Muhammad Ali or the
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Frederick Douglass.
But the list has broader ambitions. Harvey Milk, who fought for
gay rights, is present; so is Mother Jones, who fought for labor
unions; and Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, who ended up in the Soviet
gulag. The list of heroes includes Pablo Casals, who refused to play
his cello in Franco's Spain; Todd Beamer, the airline passenger who
fought against the 9/11 hijackers; Syed Ali, the Brooklyn man who
stopped a fellow Muslim from burning a synagogue; and the Navajo
code talkers, whose native language stymied the Japanese in World
Is this, then, what it all comes down to? Acting decently,
dissenting when necessary, taking risks for beliefs? Perhaps, but
there is something about the gross disparities of scale in this list
that undermines the center's main project, almost reducing slavery
to a civil liberties issue.
The final series of exhibits, ''The Struggle Continues,'' pushes
the lessons even further. In a long hall, multimedia images flash on
walls and ceiling, showing what are meant to be contemporary
examples of racism and oppression: Palestinians fleeing Israeli
soldiers; women working at a cigarette factory; the Ku Klux Klan
burning a cross. On touch screens are examples of continuing
struggles for freedom. Touch the categories slavery, hunger,
illiteracy, tyranny, racism and genocide, and contemporary examples
appear. The Sudan, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan are found. But the
United States appears under the category of hunger. Under racism
appears the ''increased suspicion'' of Muslims or those of Middle
Eastern background at airports.
The large and the small, the clear and the questionable and the
wrongheaded, are combined in a smorgasbord of injustices and
discontents. At one time the risk in a museum about persecution
would have been identity politics and the nursing of resentment;
now, as if in correction, the risk is in treating the wounds as part
of an undifferentiated political miasma.
At the exhibit's end, in a room called Dialogue Zone, a social
worker greets visitors, who may feel overwhelmed by the trauma -- or
perhaps even upset that the original subject, so powerfully touched
upon, has been so lost in a cloud of righteous feeling. One posted
ground rule reads, ''Avoid terms and phrases which define, demean or
devalue others, and use words that are affirmative and reflect a
positive attitude.'' Right!
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