A hunk of wood and metal bar sit in the center of a near pitch dark room in the basement of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, illuminated by the space’s few rays of light.
On their face, they appear to be driftwood and scraps — items of little significance. Nothing could be further from the truth.
For many around the world, the horrors of slavery are all too often relegated to body_abstractions and numbers. Slave traders sold Africans into servitude for more than 400 years.
More than 15 million people were forced from their homelands and driven into forced labor. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, ending legal slavery in the US.
Lost in all of this, is the human element. The suffering and the struggle for freedom. The searing desire for a better tomorrow amid a present replete with evils.
The wooden timber is part of the Sao Jose Paquete D’Africa, a Portuguese slave ship that sank off the coast of South Africa in 1794 near Cape Town. The unassuming metal bar was one of many used as the ship’s ballast, heavy objects loaded onto a boat to offset the weight of cargo.
But it was not used to increase stability due to the excess weight of grain, cotton, textiles, or other things we would now acknowledge as commodities.
It was used to ensure that the weight of enslaved human beings bound to the floor, suffering through a nightmare that would only worsen once the boat reached its destination, did not cause the boat to tilt and sink on the transatlantic voyage.
Sitting across from the piece of the Sao Jose’s hull and ballast are two pairs of metal shackles used to bind human beings for transit from Africa, across the Atlantic Ocean for the new world. One set is of a size made for adult wrists. The other is noticeably different.
It is far smaller, clearly intended to be wrapped around the wrists of a child.
The inference is clear. These people and their humanity were not recognized by the people who bought and sold them and exploited their labor. They were seen as property, and property alone.
Paul Gardullo, the center’s director who plays a key role in the ship project, said that as the museum built out its exhibitions, including the one dedicated to the slave trade and the struggle for freedom, “we were often told that people didn’t want to hear this stuff.”
“What we found since we’ve been open is they clearly do, they clearly want to have places where they can see history as it really happened, where they can talk to one another about history, and its continuing legacies and its importance,” he said in an interview with Anadolu as the world commemorates the 15th anniversary of International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
“What I see, as evidenced by the millions who come here is a desperate hunger for places that tell the truth, for places that are unafraid to move into these arenas,” he added.
People visit museum in large numbers
Ten million people have come through the museum’s doors since it opened in 2016 during a ceremony keynoted by former President Barack Obama, the US’ first Black commander-in-chief.
Unlike most Smithsonian museums, the African American History and Culture has since its opening remained a reservation-only institution, limiting the volume of people who can enter on any given day with lines often that often extend outside.
But even as many in the US and beyond seek to understand the realities of the transatlantic slave trade, the fight for freedom and the African American experience, some are having their journey stymied at a foundational level.
Schools in many states are increasingly becoming a flashpoint in a growing ideological war to crack down on instruction on matters of race. In Florida, a vaguely written law championed by Gov. Ron DeSantis known as the Stop W.O.K.E. Act has already left a chilling effect.
Studies Weekly, a publisher of children’s educational materials, submitted materials to authorities for review, reportedly including three versions of its story on Rosa Parks, the Black civil rights icon who refused to give up her seat to a white man in 1955 despite a segregationist law mandating she do so.
In one version, the matter of race in Parks’ protest is downplayed. In another, it is omitted altogether.
Similar revisions were present in the publisher’s materials related to other segregationist laws enacted following the Civil War that were intended to preserve white supremacy.
After the New York Times newspaper broke the story, Florida sought to heap blame on the publisher, calling its actions an overreaction to the law while saying that any publisher that “avoids the topic of race when teaching the Civil Rights movement, slavery, segregation, etc. would not be adhering to Florida law.”
Studies Weekly maintains it was trying to comply with Florida law, including the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, according to the Times.
Enduring legacy of slavery
The episode highlights the fraught climate brought to the fore by DeSantis’ law and similar pushes in Republican-led states, and the importance of places like the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Gardullo said many in the US “are beginning to understand the enduring legacy of slavery on our nation, but also on the world.”
“I think, for Americans, people in the United States of America, slavery has been one of the great unmentionables in many respects, especially in our public places, and our institutions like museums, oftentimes in schools that are not universities,” he said.
“While the history of slavery and its impact in making our world today, in terms of economics, in terms of social relations, in terms of race, in terms of nations, is well understood in universities and in research settings, it’s often not deeply understood in places like public museums and by the general public. And that’s why telling the story of slavery, a complex story of slavery and freedom, is crucial for us to have everywhere,” he added.