WHY MEMORY OF SLAVERY MATTERS

This coming weekend, the historic Penn Center, located on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, is holding its 35th Annual Heritage Days Festival to celebrate African American Gullah Geechee culture through food, books, music, educational seminars, arts and crafts, and a parade.

In 1862, the Penn Center was the first school for freed slaves established on St. Helena Island. In the 1960’s, it hosted interracial conferences on civil rights and was a retreat site for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists. Now it is a great cultural center renown for preserving African American culture in the Gullah  Geechee region.

I am happy to be sharing my new book,  The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History, which among other things,  points to the strength and resilience of this culture in spite of a history of displacement and loss.  With slavery so much in the news lately, see below a brief excerpt about why remembering slavery matters.

Memory Matters
Memory matters because, as Civil War historian James McPherson says:
“the war is still with us.”  It is not only the great academic works which have looked at the war from every angle that demonstrate this continuing interest, but it is the Lincoln associations, the Civil War Round Tables, and the hundreds of reenactors who meet regularly throughout the year to reenact battle scenes of days gone by.[i]  In short, memory matters because the past is hardly past, as William Faulkner would say.   It lingers around the contours of our minds and hearts as any unresolved issue tends to do.
And unresolved it is as authors Lois Horton and James Horton suggest in their book,  Slavery and Public History: the Tough Stuff Of American History.  From the earliest days of the establishment of American colonies, they assert:
Slavery provided a racial floor below which no white person could fall. All whites regardless of social and economic standing, were encouraged to feel a common racial bond.  Each had a vital interest in maintaining an orderly society that could control the slaves.  Under these circumstances, the rich seemed to have less to fear from unruly masses at the bottom of white society so long as the presence of black slavery emphasized their common commitment to white supremacy[ii]
Racial Slavery, then, is at the core of the American experience and its legacy looms large, or as Ira Berlin confirms,“ slavery is the ground zero of race relations.”[iii]  There is no getting around it or avoiding it.  Though there has been much progress, the dream of a post racial society is just that…a dream.  Ironically, it may in fact be the deepest desire of most of American society, but we still have a long way to go.  Yes, memory matters because without it, we are left with a shadowy lens of the past and such cloudiness is an obstacle to racial reconciliation.  As the Gullah proverb reminds us: "Mustekcyear a de root fa heal de tree."  (You need to take care of the root in order to heal the tree.) Ultimately, memory matters because racial reconciliation matters.
Memory also matters because West and Central African societies –the origin of the enslaved population- had and still have a great reverence for the sacred.  Honoring the dead is not taken lightly.   The original slave burial ground on the Butler estate in Darien, Georgia, has almost washed away because of the gradual erosion of the banks of the Altamaha River.   On a boat tour given by a descendant of the Butler estates, Tiffany Young, one can still see the faded wooden markers sticking out of the water representing graves of those who worked and built that estate.  With our new understandings of equality and freedom, how do we honor in death those who were not honored in life?  Can we honor them today as their ancestors would have wanted?   
As descendants of these and the other former estates in the Low Country region seek to honor their dead, so too they honor the living.  Memory is not just past; it is also the present.  It keeps alive the sparks of the past, and in this case, helps to give voice to the living.    Gullah Geechee communities are indeed rediscovering their voice as the preservation commission they advocated for has been established on the Federal level. But they are also  participating in a number of other organizations committed to cultural and land preservation.     From the historic Penn Center in South Carolina  to the St. Simon’s African American Heritage Coalition and the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society, to name a few, Gullah Geechee residents of the Low Country are making themselves heard. They are coming out of the shadows of history and telling their vitally important stories.[iv]..
They are honoring the rich heritage of their ancestors and sharing this heritage with the world, or as the Darien Ring Shouters, the musical group which includes descendants of the Butler plantation say after a stirring retelling of The Weeping Time Auction, “Hatred is not we teach. Heritage is what we preach.” In the end, this is why memory matters.
 Implicit in these words is a call for much needed healing.

Anne C. Bailey
Excerpt from The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History, (Cambridge University Press, 2017)


[i] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, viii-ix
[ii] James O. Horton and Lois E. Horton, Slavery and Public History: The tough stuff of American History, (New York: New Press, 2006) p.5. See also Edmund Morgan, American Slavery American Freedom. (NY: Norton, 1975).
[iii] Ira Berlin in Horton, p. 13
[iv] See also Ron and Natalie Daise’s TV show, “Gullah Gullah Island” and Cornelia Baker’s God, Dr. Buzzard and the Boleto Man, (NY: Anchor Books, 2000)
                                                     

                                         

 Image courtesy of GreaterDiversity.com





WHY MEMORY OF SLAVERY MATTERS WHY MEMORY OF SLAVERY MATTERS Reviewed by Anne Bailey on November 06, 2017 Rating: 5