08 August 2016

The Complex Map of Our Past

There is no doubt in my mind that I'd have gone on the NYC InsideOut tour of "Slavery and the Underground Railroad" last Friday anyway; but I was so damn moved by what I saw in Munich, Berlin and what I didn't see in Belarus that I've been especially inspired to help do something of our own civic housekeeping with regard to historical memory right here at home.

It was an object lesson in taking the temperature, if you will, of how we do things here in New York and to begin to understand how we might do it better.  At lunch the day before with my pal Annie Polland, Vice President at the Tenement Museum (who leads a team of educators downtown that get historical memory pretty damn well), we talked about the essentialness of space and context to telling stories of moral import--like immigration, identity, family, and, of course, race.  And in New York City, where just today one can read in the Times about the Brooklyn Diocese decision to abolish Our Lady of Loreto in Brownsville, replacing it with affordable housing.  To be sure, making living affordable in a greatly distressed area of the city is necessary and laudable.  What interests us, in this context, however, is the destruction of an immigrants' tale--from the architect to the craftsmen and others who built the church, Brownsville's bygone Italian community now replaced leaves little trace of that historical footprint.  And while it is true, as Monsignor LoPinto stated, "For all its life it was always more than a structure," we should also remember that when structures stand, their history breathes new, layered life into ever-evolving communities.


I struck by this powerful dilemma on the walking tour of slavery and abolition sites, walking through empty spaces crowded by those worker bees in the Financial District, out for lunch, coffee and cigarette breaks, chatting, mating, bumping up against gawking tourists (like me for a day) on our own conceptual excavations of the fading past.  City Hall from Dutch times marked by a brick rectangle on the sidewalk, next to a similarly configured tavern, long gone; bricks and beams barely discernible on Wall Street, marking off the original protective barrier that gave the street its name; Thomas Downing's Oyster House, which no longer stands, near the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, right across from George Washington standing tall at Federal Hall.  Downing, a free Black, fed the cities most important people in his day while also hiding fugitive Blacks in his basement.  Rebellion right under everyone's noses.  He fed Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, and countless important others.  And was a great champion of freedom.
But nothing held the power for me than the sheer emptiness of the space where once stood New York's Slave Market.  My first thought was outrage, literally, that nothing remained to indicate the existence of this hellish expression of man's inhumanity to man.  And having just come home from Germany and Belarus, where one nation's attempt to save in order to remember is jarringly contrasted with another country's reticence to bear witness, I was revolted.  At the head of Wall Street, just a stone's throw from the seaport, in the shadow of contemporary commerce, could there be a better moral corrective to the pure pursuit of capital than an archaeological remnant of its cruelest manifestation?

On the other hand, what greater vanquishment of slavery's odious existence than the physical destruction of the market where men, women and children were inhumanly sold.  Of course it should be destroyed, beam by beam, brick by brick.

And yet.

I can't help but think about what a different country we would be living in if the American project, at least since the Civil War, if our civic engagement priorities would have reflected an attempt to truly repent for the wounds and sins of slavery by requiring for all future generations an immersion in remembrance.   It's what Bryan Stephenson is doing down in Montgomery at the Equal Justice Initiative, whose offices are in the old Alabama slave market.  I first saw this on a great civil rights trip led by my friend Billy Planer at Etgar 36.  Education and public history in the service of justice. Anyway, it is nothing short of an ironic redemption that one of the nation's leading voices in racial justice has given new life and a humane voice to a building that once represented nothing more than the grotesque destruction of human life. But even more than this, EJI is also methodically collecting earth from the more than 4000 locations throughout the United States where African Americans were lynched, creating a catalog of memory that brings back to life those whose lives were cruelly cut short by American racism.  Seeing the collected earth, reading about the lives of those taken, reminded me immediately of the identity passports Nazis' victims that one receives upon entering the United States Holocaust Museum. Holding memory is always better than the ephemeral, it seems to me.

Anyway, all of these thoughts were awash in my mind as I looked out at the little sign which, frankly, you'd miss if you were just walking around downtown.  Call me crazy but I think that until we really deal with the legacy of institutional racism in our country, even in a city as enlightened as New York, the legacy of slavery ought to jump up and make us think over and over again.

Nevertheless, above is the sign.  It reads:  "New York's Municipal Slave Market" and explains that it was established by Common Council law in 1711.  Slavery had been in New York since at least 1626, not abolished until 1827, and then fully in 1847.  Slaves built Broadway, the Wall of Wall Street, and Trinity Church.  And make no bones about it:  this was a MUNICIPAL slave market, meaning it was run by the city of New York, which alone ought to really give pause as we contemplate race and notions of civic responsibility yet again.

It is my goal in the months and years ahead to help lead the way in this city to just such a confrontation with historical memory by marking space and creating opportunities to face history, reconcile ourselves to its complex map, and across divides build new alliances around action that makes our world a better and more just place.

Walking tours are a good start for the occasional tourist willing to pony up $30 for a tour hour journey; but there is doubtless much more we can do.

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