Slav­ery mu­seum in Liver­pool aims to con­front painful legacy

Antelope Valley Press (Sunday) - - Valley Life - By RUS­SELL CONTRERAS

LIVER­POOL, Eng­land — Scar­let shack­les sit peace­fully on dis­play in front of a sad, gray back­drop. The now rusted leg irons once locked hu­man an­kles dur­ing 18th cen­tury voy­ages from Africa to some Euro­pean port, then to the Amer­i­cas.

Who the shack­les held re­main a mys­tery. But as a ci­ti­zen of the United States, I’ve likely bro­ken bread with a de­scen­dant of the woman forced to wear this in­stru­ment. Maybe my un­cle fought alongside her kin in a war. Or it’s pos­si­ble one of her dis­tant rel­a­tives is now my rel­a­tive.

Th­ese are the thoughts I en­ter­tained re­cently while walk­ing through the re­flec­tive In­ter­na­tional Slav­ery Mu­seum in Liver­pool, Eng­land. Founded in 2007 on the bi­cen­te­nary of the abo­li­tion of the Bri­tish slave trade, the mu­seum sits just a short walk from the dry docks where slave trad­ing ships were re­paired and fit­ted out in the 1700s. (And it’s close by the The Bea­tles Story, the world’s largest per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion purely de­voted to the home­town band.) Once a major slav­ing port, Liver­pool grew thanks to mer­chants’ fi­nan­cial ties to the en­slave­ment of peo­ple to the Amer­i­cas.

To­day, the build­ing tells the story of the en­slave­ment of peo­ple from Africa and how this Bri­tish city ben­e­fited from hu­man bondage. The Liver­pool lo­ca­tion re­claims a space once con­nected to world­wide hu­man suf­fer­ing and is sim­i­lar to O Mer­cado de Escravos — the slav­ery mu­seum in La­gos,

Por­tu­gal, where the Euro­pean slave trade be­gan. But Liver­pool’s mu­seum is much larger, more in­ter­ac­tive, and more am­bi­tious with­out be­ing ex­ploita­tive.

In­side, vis­i­tors im­me­di­ately are taken on a med­i­ta­tive ex­pe­ri­ence fo­cus­ing on Africa be­fore Euro­pean con­tact. You are greeted by quotes of Amer­i­can abo­li­tion­ists and civil rights lead­ers etched into stone walls be­fore you see tra­di­tional masks from present-day Sierra Leone and Mali. There are vi­brant tex­tiles from Ghana, in­tri­cate head­dresses from Cameroon and sam­ples of Igbo wall paint­ing from Nige­ria. You can lis­ten to sam­ples of drum sig­nals from the Repub­lic of Congo or a Mbuti hunt­ing song. The mes­sages are clear: be­fore en­slave­ment, Africa was a di­verse and com­plex con­ti­nent with long artis­tic and re­li­gious tra­di­tions.

Next, vis­i­tors are whisked to­ward a room tack­ling en­slave­ment and the bru­tal Mid­dle Pas­sage. Racial ide­olo­gies and Europe’s un­fa­mil­iar­ity with the cul­tures of Africa sparked the slave trade which grew once Euro­pean pow­ers ex­panded to the Amer­i­cas, the mu­seum tells us. In this room, de­tails of the voy­age of the ship Es­sex are re­con­structed. That’s a slave ship that left Liver­pool on June 13, 1783, just nine years af­ter the Amer­i­can Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence.

Dur­ing the Mid­dle Pas­sage por­tion, vis­i­tors en­counter shack­les and chains used in forts and cas­tles along the African coast to hold hu­mans be­fore their hor­rific jour­ney. A small replica of a slave boat il­lus­trates how cap­tives were tossed into small com­part­ments. Next to the ship are 18th-cen­tury whips and brand­ing irons. Yes, th­ese were used.

Then, there was re­sis­tance, lib­er­a­tion, and the long fight for civil rights. Sur­pris­ing, I walked into an area ded­i­cated to the African Amer­i­can he­roes from Har­riet Tub­man to the Rev. Martin Luther King. Jr. and Mal­colm X. U.S. news footage from the 1950s and 1960s il­lus­trates how the de­scen­dants of those who crossed the Mid­dle Pas­sage had to fight for hu­man rights and against vi­o­lence amid white supremacy — the ide­ol­ogy that launched racial­ized slav­ery in the first place. There’s also pho­tos of the civil rights strug­gles in the United King­dom from Lon­don’s “Keep Bri­tain White Rally” in 1960 to the Tox­teth Riot of 1981 in Liver­pool over al­le­ga­tions of po­lice ha­rass­ment.

The mu­seum ends with a space for chang­ing ex­hibits re­lated to the themes around mod­ern-day slav­ery. Dur­ing my visit in Novem­ber, I en­coun­tered an ex­hi­bi­tion called “Am I not a woman and a sis­ter” — a mov­ing im­age in­stal­la­tion by Eng­land-based artist El­iz­a­beth Kwant. She co-cre­ated the project with fe­male sur­vivors of mod­ern-day slav­ery in part­ner­ship with Liver­pool char­ity City Hearts. The project links cur­rent hu­man traf­fick­ing to the story out of the Mid­dle Pas­sage.

In the U.S., jour­nal­ist Nikole Han­nah-Jones has sparked con­ver­sa­tions about the legacy of slav­ery in that na­tion’s his­tory with her in­ter­ac­tive 1619 Project in The New York Times. It ex­am­ines the 400th an­niver­sary of the ar­rival of the first en­slaved peo­ple from West Africa on the present-day Amer­ica’s eastern shore. The project chal­lenges read­ers to con­sider how their own lives have been shaped by the legacy of slav­ery and it is help­ing in­spire ac­tivists in places like Al­bu­querque, New Mex­ico, to push for their own mu­seum of black his­tory.

Walk­ing by an in­stal­la­tion of for­mer slave and abo­li­tion­ist Olau­dah Equiano, I heard two young black women dis­cussing the 1619 Project and how they didn’t un­der­stand the crit­i­cism it faced for try­ing to re­shape a nar­ra­tive in the U.S. As we left the Equiano sculp­ture, we stopped at a dis­play of a 1920-era Ku Klux Klan robe and hood from Port Jervis, New York. The out­fit that was once used to ter­ror­ize blacks and Catholics stared back down at us. We were si­lent. But I could feel we were re­lieved the glass case sur­round­ing it pro­tected us. We were safe for now.

But were we?

As­so­ci­ated Press pho­tos

A sculp­ture ti­tled “Ti­malle” (right), by French artist Fran­cois Pi­quet, which tack­les the themes of slav­ery in the Caribbean, is dis­played at the In­ter­na­tional Slav­ery Mu­seum in Liver­pool, Eng­land. The mu­seum seeks to tell the story of the en­slave­ment of peo­ple from Africa and how the Bri­tish city ben­e­fited from hu­man bondage. Mu­seum vis­i­tors (above) ex­am­ine a dis­play of a 1920s-era Ku Klux Klan out­fit from Port Jervis, N.Y.

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