The Museum of Now: on "Slavery in New York"

The Museum of Now: on "Slavery in New York"





I stare at a slave who's been dead a hundred and fifty years. Posters for the exhibit \work{Slavery in New York} show an old, snow-haired black man. He was the last slave freed in New York in 1851 and his eyes, hardened by the fear of death and the fatigue of life, ask "What did you do with your freedom."


I ride the subway to Central Park West to see the exhibit. It's a neighborhood where money layered on money has built invisible walls not found on maps but New Yorkers know by instinct. Usually I leave my streets, where men eye men for money, to relax within these walls, to feel security I can't afford and breathe in the quiet world of liberal privilege.


Today I measure the distance between me and the old man in the poster, between the life he endured and my unknown fate. The New York Historical Society opened the exhibit and though it closes March 5th the show raises questions about who we were and who we are. Slavery is centuries old but the reality of it lies beneath our feet. In 1991 construction workers drove the steel of modern New York into earth and hit bone. They found skeletons of slaves buried under the glittering surface of today.


Exhibit sponsor J.P. Morgan Chase wants to conceal the benefit they derived these skeletons. In 2004 a reparations attorney found J.P Morgan's fortune was built selling insurance to slave traders. Their funding is their down payment on the past. If they subsidize historical reviews of slavery they won't owe anyone victimized by their wealth today.


As I entered \work{Slavery in New York}, projected letters swirled on the floor as if caught in the ocean tides played on the speakers. The letters linked into a quote from a slave or slave owner then swirled again. The tearing apart of language signaled the centuries long silence to come.


The soundtrack of slavery, rhythmic moaning and iron smacking iron, continued as a video lit the faces of the audience. It explained how New York was financed by the slave trade that caused the Industrial Revolution. An older black couple sat quietly as if studying evidence while white women chatted nervously.


I hovered around the white women, listening for a racist remark to justify my anger, which may be older than any history. They noticed me and began speaking in tones of forced regret. I was left with little evidence just how they said "blah-aks" as if spitting bitterness out.


In the first room are wire sculptures of slaves. I touched one and wondered what history did slaves have to hold? A faint scar on my finger shined briefly as I turned my hand. Maybe they just read the truth written on their bodies by whip and work.


On the wall a map of New Amsterdam showed the forest slaves cleared for the colony. It shocked me because I've learned the myth of black laziness. Many myths exist about blacks that interlock into a maze, when lost I listen for voices to guide me out. History is their voice but it's not easy to hear, either its screams or whispers.


A panel showed the 1664 British take over of New Amsterdam. No shots were fired. No one cared as long as money made money. New Amsterdam was re-named New York and Dutch gave way to English but the ban against the black voice stayed. Slaves caught conspiring faced torture, so they hid truth in song and dance. The exhibit said such secrecy created "two New Yorks, one public and one private". The phrase echoed the "two New Yorks" campaign of the Democratic nominee for mayor, Fernando Ferrer. I laughed but a thought broke my smile. Are we so afraid of power we speak in hints and innuendo?


Nearby a video installation shaped like a well looked up from the bottom to four black women braiding their voices together. They talked of lovers in prison; magic cures for cracked hands and laughed as they admitted they just wanted a pair of white women's gloves. Only one held out, "I want new hands," she said and they hummed agreement. Their struggle to survive demanded they drop any illusions, one being that those in power will ever freely share it. Slaves knew this and a precious few acted on it. On the wall was a summary of 1741 plot to set New York on fire. Others disappeared and the ads for run-away slaves are evidence of their triumph. One described a woman's body in detail. Her crime being that she stole herself. 


The next display was a slave cabin and the master's house. The slave quarters were bare and small. It was only in times of chaos that blacks had freedom to move, as in the Revolution of 1776 when desperate armies recruited them.


I passed a video of two scholars detailing New York's grudging emancipation of its slaves. An old white man sat, mouth tight, hands folded in his lap. I wondered what he thought, having lived to see an invisible people become visible and whose unpaid labor was now seen as the source of his privilege. I didn't ask because I might lose my own comfortable answers and it was the comfort of self-righteousness that the exhibit was giving me.


By the 1800s blacks were out numbered by European immigrants, yet remained the symbol of enslavement against which the new arrivals measured their freedom and their "whiteness". By 1816 the American Colonization Society began urging blacks to move to Africa. They succeeded, not physically but aesthetically we've been searching for a way back for centuries. A lot of dread-locked brothers and sisters came to the exhibit, to learn more about slavery and why we twist our hair to look like exposed tree roots, to remember ancestors ripped from Africa.


We nod to each other. I asked one about the exhibit, "It's good but it doesn't go far enough," he said. "Slavery was bloody. This is too Disney." He took out a New York Post newspaper. "Besides," he said pointing to it, "Racism is here now. You got papers doing character assassination on the second non-white to run for mayor." He walked away. \work{Slavery in New York} delivers history but not, as it likes to advertise, why it matters. It did not show how each generation tried to unravel the knot of oppression and became bound again, to do so it must leap from the past to the present. Instead it goes from the public to the private. 


At the end is a booth with dark curtains; inside visitors confess feelings of shame and anger and guilt and their interviews play on video screens. I walked in and closed the curtains and watched myself in the dark screen.


I rode the subway to Bed-Stuy, came out and looked towards home. If we could see beyond our time and from that place look back, what would the exhibit \work{Race in New York} display? After the boroughs are gentrified will Marcy Projects become a museum? If so, it would hire black actors to stalk visitors demanding spare change, less for money than proof they're not invisible. It might display police blotters of those who decided not to ask anymore but just take and run.


They'd see our versions of the American Colonization Society; the Moors and Nation of Islam, the Black Israelites and Rastafari in the streets. Each group rips open the hurt caused by racism then promises a paradise that has not and will never exist. It can't because racism is not based in skin but in the soul, where fear of others and ourselves follow us no matter where we run.  


I remembered the installation of the woman at the well asking for new hands. If there was an exhibit of today, it'd show us buying new skin and new teeth. Visitors would see a people use clothes and jewelry to conceal the cheapness of black skin. They'd see a people who centuries ago could not testify in court, who spoke worthless words now glue gold and diamonds to their teeth. They'd see a people replacing their bodies with symbols of wealth, as if asking for new ones like a race of desperate cyborgs. 


Visitors could see stressed out mothers yelling at children, who grew up to be men screaming at girlfriends who have babies they yell at. They'd see women standing on corners through the night, waiting for men to buy them. They'd enjoy a video installation looking up from the cup of a homeless man talking survival with friends. The exhibit might remind them of neighborhoods they don't go to, where people live beyond invisible walls.


A black man stumbled up to me, "Boss? You got change?" he asks. I shake my head but look him in the eye while lying. I walk home looking at my empty palms; they are not scarred or calloused from work. They are new hands that could change my small part of the world and it seems change is what everyone is asking for.


I get in and take off my coat. In the bathroom I stand in front of the mirror and feel the immensity of time, the certainty that my hair will go snow-white and generations will be born after I'm gone and look back on me and judge. I realize in the mirror is a man who's been dead since he was born, dead because he hasn't done anything with his freedom.


      "Slavery in New York"

      October 7, 2005 through March 5, 2006

      New York Historical Society

      170 Central Park West at 77th Street

      New York, NY 10024