New Internationalist

Memories of slavery

Yesterday I started reading Create Dangerously, a series of essays by Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat. I have read just about every single one of her books, which are all fiction except for the last two. So exquisite is the prose and so powerful are the stories of loss, exile, violence and love, that I can only read a few pages at a time, so as to thoroughly absorb the words and let my thoughts wander into my own dreams and nightmares.

In one particular story she talks about ‘grappling with memory’ and how Haitians seem to have made a collective agreement to remember the triumphs and gloss over their failures – so they speak of revolution but rarely speak of the slavery that led to it.

This reminded me of a leaflet I picked up months ago in the Black bookshop in Washington DC. It was advertising a tour to Goree Island in Senegal and Elmina Castle in Ghana, including a trip to Juffre, the ancestral home of Alex Haley. It just stuck in my mind.

The leaflet and Danticat’s comments on Haitians’ ‘re-memory’ reminded me of an article I read a while back. In ‘Time of Slavery’, Saidiya Hartman discusses the commoditization of Elmina Castle and the collective slave memories from the diaspora. The plaque on the entrance to the castle reads:

In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We the living vow to uphold this.

I was taken to Elmina Castle as a child but I cannot remember going in – I don’t think we did. When I was older, I remember my first visit to a small slave museum in Badagry, near the Nigerian-Benin border. The crazy thing was that I went there not to visit the museum, but to attend a birthday party that someone had organized at a restaurant near the town.

Looking back, it somehow seems almost sacrilegious to have a birthday party next door to a slave museum. Badagry also has the first Anglican Mission house – after slavery ended, the missionaries moved in to wreak more havoc on people’s lives.

On Google, the first result of an ‘Elmina Castle’ search is the Ontario Black History Society which describes the castle as ‘a tourist attraction’:

Today, Elmina Castle is a tourist attraction and World Heritage Monument in Cape Coast, Ghana. This hasn’t always been the case. Looking at the castle from the outside, nothing can ever prepare the unsuspecting visitor or tourist emotionally to hear about the tales of horror and atrocities that went on beyond those walls.

If one defines a ‘tourist attraction’ as a place people go to visit as part of a recreational activity, then how sad and inappropriate it is to describe Elmina as such! On Wikipedia, I discovered that ‘niche’ tourism includes specific types such as dark tourism, which ‘includes travel to sites associated with death and suffering’. That seems very appropriate for Elmina Castle and Goree Island.

If these travels in hyper-reality are not satisfying enough, then there is the Memory Village, where you can experience being a slave for a day or a week... Hopefully, this appalling, horrific, and misguided project will never get off the ground. This is not memory – this is fetish and an insult to the collective memory and history of African descendents throughout the world.

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