Friday, August 16, 2002
Contrary to Jay Nordlinger (scroll down until you get there), I mostly agree with the latest Richard Cohen column on the subject of a museum of the African-American experience to be built on the Washington Mall.
I agree with two sentiments: first, that it is problematic that there is no museum of some sort relating to the unique black experience in America; second, that the Holocaust Museum does not belong there.
To take the latter first: the Holocaust belongs - and I do think that's the right word - to three peoples: the Jews, the Germans and the Poles. To the Jews because we were its principal victims; to the Germans because they were its principal perpetrators; and to the Poles because the crime was principally committed in their country. That's not to slight the gypsy victims or the mentally handicapped or homosexuals who were also targeted for murder, and it is not to ignore the contributions that other nations made to the perpetration of this historic crime, nor the contributions that all nations made to saving many of its intended victims. But there is a center and there is a periphery in anything, the Holocaust included. And by any estimation, America was a peripheral presence. America was not a great perpetrator nor a great savior, and the Holocaust has essentially nothing to do with the American experience. And that is what the Mall is for: it is our secular Acropolis, our shrine to the American experience and its symbols. If there is to be a major Holocaust museum in America, it should be in New York or Los Angeles.
There is a great American crime of course, and a great American story of reparation for that crime. The crime was race slavery and its aftermath in racial apartheid. And if there should be a museum on the Mall to memorialize a crime, it should be a Museum of Slavery and Anti-Slavery. Such a museum would, if done right, be a great contribution to education. Most Americans have not, I suspect, thought much about how the crime of slavery came to be; most have not thought seriously about what the Founding Fathers might have done to strangle the institution in its crib rather than let it grow as they did, until it became too large and dangerous to live with. Most Americans, I suspect, rest easy in their moral superiority to our ancestors, and are ashamed of them. And so we learn nothing about how to avoid committing such crimes in the future. Far better to study some other nation's crimes, crimes we did not commit.
A museum of slavery and anti-slavery would educate our population about the ancient roots of slavery, its justification by Aristotle, and its acceptance by the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Scriptures and the Quran. It would explore the development of slavery in West Africa and in pre-Columbian America, and how these institutions informed and were changed by the arrival of the European conquerors and settlers and the advent of a massive trans-Atlantic slave trade. It would expose us to the horror of slavery in the mines of Peru, on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, and on the plantations of the American South - but also the extension of the peculiar institution in its domestic as well as its agricultural form as far north as New England. It would introduce us to the culture of the slaves, to their efforts to retain normal family and cultural life under conditions of unspeakable hardship, to the Christianity that they remade for themselves under that hardship, and how it was similar to and different from the Christianity of their masters, and the Christianity of the Northern whites. And it would focus attention on the debates of the Founding Fathers over slavery, how Franklin called for immediate emancipation and Washington saw slavery ending through gradual manumission and the integration of a free black population into the national life - and into the national gene pool - but how Madison and Jefferson, unable to accept the proposition of racial equality, evaded the problem, leaving it to a later generation to solve, or be destroyed by. It would trace the history of anti-slavery, from the colonial period through the Civil War and after, in both Britain and America, and among blacks and whites, how they contributed to ending a great evil, how they risked their lives for it, but also how their activities risked harm to their own cause. Similarly, it would trace the history of the slave civilization of the South, how it functioned, what were its professed and real virtues, how it justified itself and how the evil institution that it was based upon corrupted and destroyed it. We would be taught of the heroism of those among the slaves and former slaves who led their people to freedom, in flight and in fight, who took the greatest risks and shed the most blood to free the United States of America, not only themselves, from the Slave Power. And we would lament, of course, how their service was betrayed by the apartheid system known as Jim Crow.
Abraham Lincoln was notable for arguing at the same time that slavery was evil and that Northerners had no grounds for holding themselves morally superior to Southerners because, had they been born in the South, with the South's history and economic and environmental condition, they would have made the same decisions and perpetrated the same evil. This is not an easy posture to hold, but it is a necessary one for us to recapture, else we will not understand how evil institutions grow, or see them if they are growing in our midst. A major museum of slavery and anti-slavery could do that for us. But we could not build it. We are not, as a national culture, anywhere near secure enough in our own understanding of ourselves to attempt something like this, however important it may be.
And so I turn to Cohen's suggestion as a second-best. It is unfortunate that we must pay tribute to the African-American contribution to American civilization in this fashion, because to do so involves either hidden dishonesty or hidden defeat. Dishonesty, because as Cohen says, the African-American story is far more than the story of slavery and Jim Crow (as Ralph Ellison argued, it is in fact the story of America, the most American story there is), and yet but for slavery and Jim Crow what possible place would such a memorial have on the Mall? Shall there be a museum of the Jewish contribution to American civilization? Chinese? Mexican? Italian? If we're going to have museums of this sort, again, we should have them in New York, or Chicago, or somewhere else that stands for our diversity of origin, not in the place that stands for the unum that our pluribus has become. Or worse, defeat, because if this is the only group to have its contributions to American civilization singled out on the Mall, then this group is still separate, still not counted already as part of the national story, and is this a fact - if it is a fact - that we want to enshrine on our national Acropolis? In 1929, when Jim Crow still ruled, it may have made a great deal of sense to do so - indeed, the message of such a museum might have been a powerful rebuke to Jim Crow itself, a challenge to end the separation it represented in the name of the service that it recorded. But is this still the message of 2002?
Nonetheless, something should be built, and better a museum of the African-American experience than nothing - particularly when we already enshrine a memorial to someone else's crime in that spot. If we can all agree that something should be built, we could perhaps have an argument for the sake of heaven about precisely what before we actually break ground.