Slavery Art for a Heart

That morning, April 7th, I woke up feeling extremely anxious. My wife and I had slept well, a good 8+ hours, yet my heart was pounding stronger than normal. I could tell I had had nightmares of some sort. No, it wasn’t because we were in a cheap Redroof Inn in Newnan, just outside Atlanta, GA. There was something deeper, something in my gut.

But to better understand why that was let me start from what had been happening in the week leading up to that moment. And excuse me if this time I take my time, but the topic at hand needs to be delivered with respectful depth.

Thanks to my father, it was going to be two weeks of cultural immersion, of historical analysis and of questioning the soul of mankind.

It was cold that morning, what’s new? My father rolled into Detroit late March and we headed to see one of our favorite spots in Detroit, the train station that has since been bought by Ford to create their autonomous driving division. Having been there a few too many times, photographing different angles can present a challenge. Then again, every day is unique, so here I go making this one.

Father and Wife patiently wait for me. Detroit, Mar 2019

We casually stroll around, and Detroit presents its usual scenes. Which continue to show America. Which I continue to love. New, old, vintage, all assembled together.

Corktown, Detroit, Mar 2019

And of course, with a significant touch of “external” influences. From Slaves to Japanese udon.

We choose to try out Ima, a new restaurant that serves Japanese udon, which has become my wife’s and my favorite food since going to Japan last year.

We are gracefully welcomed by this individual’s jacket.

Waiting to be seated at Ima. Corktown, Detroit, March 2019

Thankfully the udon do not disappoint. The three of us are satisfied, bellies are full, laughter all-around and ready to go visit the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. According to Wikipedia, it was opened in 1965 and the “museum holds the world’s largest permanent exhibit on African-American culture”.

The two weeks ahead were going to be tough. Seeing what we, mankind, are capable of doing to each other, through the American Slavery Chapter. It was going to be a tough pill to swallow.

We park, leave our coats on the open-to-all and free coat racks, get our tickets, and enter in a small dark room which plays a short movie on all the famous African-American individuals, from Muhammad Ali to Barack Obama. Not particularly thrilling, but it does set the stage for what we’re about to experience.

The first display shows how different continents fit into “Africa”. It still astonishes me that “Africa” is commonly considered as a country in that aside from the few countries that everyone knows, we still speak of Africa as a single body of nationalities, cultures, and customs.

In case you were wondering, that’s the US in Africa. The former is about half the size of the latter.

The museum displays are cheap though and poorly maintained. There certainly is material to view, to read, to digest, but this initial part is nowhere near as interesting as what we’re about to see.

In the meantime I take some snapshots of things I want to remember, and share with you.

More importantly, 82 years prior to when Fort Detroit was established, in 1619 (if you don’t want to do the math) the first Slaves were brought to Jamestown, VA. Of the millions of Slaves, a display shows that 400,000 were brought to the US, while 3.6 million were “imported” in Brazil. I still have a hard time reading the title of the table… “Slave Imports”. Literally, as if these souls were goods, not humans.

Of course this number is going to be different in every source you open, and indeed, the table above is from 1969 so it is safe to assume that through research the figures will vary. Regardless. This. Does. Not. Make. It. Understandable. or Unforgettable.

As we continue through the exhibit we arrive on the main deck. Yes, a full scale replica of a main deck of ships where Slaves were “imported” from Africa. And then taking the stairs, we entered the ship’s hold, where the Slaves were amassed for the entire journey.

Ships carrying hundreds of Slaves, which took one to three months from Africa to America

This was no longer the African piece of the museum, with tribal instruments and clay pots. This was the start of the modern American History.

Slave trade exhibit at the Charles Wright Museum of African-American Museum. Detroit, Mar 2019

The piece that showed the Slave trade. A few days later we would be in Montgomery, Alabama, and one of the informational signs in the city read:

“Montgomery’s Slave Market. The city’s slave market was in the Artesian Basin (Court Square). Slaves of all ages were auctioned, along with land and livestock, standing in line to be inspected. Public posters advertised sales and included gender, approximate age, first name (slaves did not have last names), skill, price, complexion and owner’s name. In the 1850s, able field hands brought $1,500, skilled artisans $3,000. In 1859, the city had seven auctioneers and four slave depots…”

The exhibit above, could have very well been a representation of Montgomery itself. Some People, Land, Livestock, all sold and purchased between some animals.

The three of us dissipate and each read what we want. We occasionally regroup with confounded faces. We are perplexed as to how this was possible, and by the cruelty that is around us.

By the laws that justify the brutalities. Twenty lashes each. Just for walking with other six people.

I photographed the artwork, like this one below.

Art is what manages to show what history books can only tell us. And with Art come the waterfalls of emotions. The heavy heart, the sinking throat. Imagine reading something like the caption of the image:

“Some found humor in thinking up tasks ‘suited’ to escaped blacks that offered their service to the army…”

And now take a second look at the cartoon. The difference is that through art you can relive the social movement of the times, whereas through a mere description you get “Wikipedia knowledge”. Get my point? Imagine reading about Nat King Cole, reading the lyrics, or reading how the keys are arranged. And then actually listen to it.

Nat King Cole, I discovered through photography, was born in Montgomery, Alabama.

We continued to stroll through the museum. We were approaching more modern times, with displays about Ford offering equal pay to Black and White people and displays of Motown.

A book nearby hangs on display. The book is “Henry Ford and Negro People” by Christopher C Alston and it acknowledged that [while ]Henry Ford gave African Americans both job opportunities and equal pay for equal work, he discriminated against them in other ways.

And of course, to counter these wonderful stories, there were placards that explained how only in 1995 did Mississippi ratify the amendment to abolish slavery. I repeat, 1995. Take a look at the last sentence. Just 130 years after Lincoln had proposed it in 1865.

We had had our fill. The musuem was closing and we headed back home. A few days afters we would watch the movie, Mississippi Burning, a crime thriller set in Mississippi in the 1960s, with Gene Hackman and Willem DeFoe. It was nominated as Best Picture in 1988, but was beat by Rain Main.

I encourage you to watch it, but don’t blame me if the next week or so you wake up with a heavy heart. Maybe it was what I’ll write about next time that caused it.

Until Next Time,

Gio