Saturday, May 16, 2015

National Slave Ship Museum: A fully-functioning slave ship sailing the Mississippi to entertain you, how about that?

Today I find myself in a bit of an emotional quandary. The National Slave Ship Museum, a project that I thought had died quietly already, appears to be alive and well. According to a local station, the New Orleans City Council approved last night a proposal to build this museum. But raising my eyebrow at this questionable endeavor proposed for the New Orleans Riverfront is not what troubles me. What's really tearing me up is that I must write my objections about a project that is the dream of an elder and a fellow lover of Black History in Louisiana, and encourage him to do no harm.

The National Slave Ship Museum is the dream of black, “amateur historian” Lloyd Lazard, 74. He first proposed the project in the mid-90s, going so far as to lobby the Department of the Interior and gain a thumbs up, reports New Orleans City Business, and he's been at it ever since. I applaud this kind of tenacity, but what will happen after Mr. Lazard passes on?

In 2005, the proposal for the museum was included in a riverfront revitalization plan for New Orleans (.pdf). In 2013, the key players stepped forward again and registered National Slave Ship Museum, Inc., with the state of Louisiana as a non-profit corporation. Antoinette Harrell-Miller of Kentwood, Louisiana, a genealogist, is listed as a director. Clifton James of the Urban Design Research Center, the architect who designed the proposed complex that's pictured above, is listed as its agent along with Lazard.

I'm not against museums about slavery or any attempt to educate the public about this sordid era of American and world history. Also, I'm glad that a group of black Louisianans have taken the initiative to stand up for Black History amid idealizations of the past fostered in this state.

My concern is that this project sounds like something that could easily devolve into a garish, Disneyesque-knock-off theme park (Epcot not Magic Kingdom). If not so grand as Disney, then maybe it will be the colorful Yeehaw! of Opryland in Nashville. So, one minute a slave ship, the next a party on deck with a brass band. I mean, this is New Orleans.

On the Council's approval of the plan, WVUE reports:
The proposed $170 million museum will include a life-size interactive slave ship built inside a new five-story building and a riverfront park with an amphitheater and two replica African villages.
The museum complex will also include a Creole Caribbean African restaurant, an herb and vegetable garden, a DNA lab, an exhibit and meeting space.
As a part of the museum experience, visitors will have the opportunity to travel aboard a fully functioning replica slave ship that will sail to Natchez, Miss., and Scott's Bluff in Baton Rouge, located near Southern University.” (emphasis added by me)
Does this sound like a museum that will educate the nation about the loss of thousands of lives during the Middle Passage and the enslavement of millions of Africans around the world through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade? Or does it sound more like a Fantasy Land complete with riverboat rides?

A "fully-functioning replica slave ship" sailing down the Mississippi River with tourists would be an abomination.

The loss of black lives under the slave trade and the enslavement of black people in America should be treated with the same solemnity and sacred care shown victims remembered with the United States Holocaust Museum not the brashness of a theme park passing for museum.

The people involved in this project (Lazard, Harrell-Miller, James) seem to be sincere, community-oriented people and activists. Lazard wants to not only feature American slavery but slavery around the world. Still, their vision for a museum about the dehumanizing horrors of the slave trade feels short-sighted and distorted. As you may grasp, this vision to approach slavery as consumable amusement "museum" is the root of my objection.

Louisiana has a problem reconciling with its slavery history. The tourism industry here repeatedly prefers to sugar coat or blatantly lie about slavery's atrocities, and it sounds like this proposed venture will be no different. For instance, one article at the Uptown Messenger, after mentioning that Lazard sees a vision similar to the World War II Museum and the Holocaust museum (or the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center), continues with this quote from someone else who may be involved:
“One component of it is incredible horror and destruction, but they’re mostly places of hope and victory and heroes,” said Michael Mayer, a West End boat builder.
Well, that's just what America needs given its current dysfunction on race and the Black experience, a slave ship museum that lets visitors leave feeling they've been in a place of hope surrounded by victory and heroes. Instead of grasping the depravity and horror of it all, folks can stroll along with their children saying, "See that! Everybody's overcome. Slavery all worked out for the mutual good."

I hope that's not what Mr. Mayer meant, but that's what I envision happening. How would that outcome be helpful?

Also, any comparison between the Underground Railroad and a slave ship is ludicrous. Through one black people seek self-determination; through the other they are chattel.

This project calls to mind that slave-ship video game that turned out to be a promotion for a slavery documentary. Thinking it was real, people protested, wondering who would want to interact with slavery as entertainment.

And another thought arises: How strange that the white man who turned Whitney Plantation into a slave museum painstakingly ensured visitors could not leave comforted and thinking "it's all good," but with this proposed slave ship museum we see a group of seemingly sincere black people bending over backwards to make a slave ship experience enjoyable, to fashion black suffering as an attraction. Is it possible this project needs a dash of white guilt?

I can't help but feel this project has probably mushroomed into a toxic cloud of imprudence since Lazard first shared his dream.

Gena Haskett of Los Angeles, writing on Facebook, also cannot fathom how such a presentation of the Middle Passage and slave trade would be acceptable to anyone concerned about education and African-American history.
"Will they re-create the rapes, the physical abuse and the tossing overboard of sick and dying Africans? Sea water and feces are not good smells to have near a restaurant. I have more questions but I'm feeling queasy from the ones I just presented. Not good. Not good at all to base it on abduction ships."
New Orleans, my hometown, has a rich history that includes being a major port through which slaves came from Africa, and as anyone can gather through the state of Louisiana’s plantation tourism, the enslavement of Africans was big business throughout the state. But this plantation and slavery tourism has always been painful and problematic.

With the exception of the Whitney Plantation exhibit that focuses on the lives of slaves instead of the "genteel" lives of their masters, the cruelty and horrors of slavery have been largely sanitized by the local tourism industry. Certainly this sanitizing has served not to tell the public the truth but to glorify and mythologize the antebellum South.

So, despite the most likely good intentions of the people involved to date, I am concerned that the proposed National Slave Ship Museum ultimately will fall into this same kind of minimizing that trivializes the hellish lives of the enslaved or turn the tragedy of the Middle Passage into some kind of amusement park ride.

I am also concerned that in the end the slave ship museum will be little more than a money-making operation no matter its “non-profit” status now, and so it will become just another way black bodies are exploited by the local, state, and Federal governments as well as major corporations. Nonetheless, I am not asking simply that this museum project end.

I am asking for national dialogue and complete transparency in the process, including sourcing, research, staffing, management, and funding. Also, since it’s called the National Slave Ship Museum, I ask that that the national community be made more aware of the plans. We need a deeper discussion about whether this is project is on the right road and much broader oversight. New Orleans, after all, is not the guardian of the legacy of slavery alone nor may it alone presume to speak for the millions killed or crippled by the slave trade.We are, after all, still living with its damage.

But how did this slave-ship museum project get this far? Why didn't one of our black city council members declare, "Hell no! On our ancestors' graves and again, no! Not like this. Never like this."

Please sign the petition demanding that the New Orleans City Council sends this museum's planners back to the drawing board. Click here and sign.


bellecamino said...

I admit that I had mixed feelings about this at first, and was worried we were all jumping to conclusions and tht this was maybe a really good thing and we were too hasty.
And then I got to the part about the ride in the replica slave ship.

The fact that this started with such true and good intentions really breaks my heart. I so hope that they will find a way to make this the sort of memorial and museum it should be, and not this travesty.

Adrastos said...

Outstanding post. The idea of the replica slave ship is idiotic.

Btw, I think Laura Plantation does a good job in dealing with Louisiana's slave history. They advised the folks at Whitney when they started. More white liberal guilt at work.

Anonymous said...

The fact that this started with such true and good intentions really breaks my heart. I so hope that they will find a way to make this the sort of memorial and museum it should be, and not this travesty.