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Slavery: InHuman History at MoAD

It Canít Happen Here

Slavery in California? Iím reminded of the Frank Zappa and the Mothers song "It Canít Happen Here", which, in its 60's impressionistic way, is about our innate ability to block certain concepts from our image of everyday reality. One of the big shockers (and there are many shockers) about Slavery: InHuman History, currently at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, is that it did indeed happen here. Slavery in California was not widespread as in other states, but documents recently located by scholars give definite proof of its existence. Two of these rare documents comprise part of the exhibition.

Slavery: InHuman History has a unique format; itís a combination of the traveling exhibition titled Slavery in New York, which was organized by the New York Historical Society, and according to the press release, ďthe most ambitious exhibition ever assembled on slavery n New York,Ē and MoADís core permanent exhibitions. Together this material does not present a comprehensive treatment of the subject, as it appears that slavery research is just beginning to scrape the surface of this phenomena as a topic.

Most Americans probably have an innate mental mechanism that wants to deny the extent of slavery, or to minimize its impact, and to some degree, this is understandable. Slavery is in that category of human experience that is so inconceivably repulsive to the modern mind that it automatically invites official and personal denial, radically altered versions of the truth, and other elaborate mental mechanisms that shift the blame elsewhere.

Famous mass exterminations, torture, cannibalism, and other repellant forms of social behavior are treated similarly. From a political perspective, the propaganda strategy is simple: turn the oppressed (or the enemy) into sub-humans, so that a generally God fearing, righteous (and usually) Christian public can find a way to rationalize subhuman behavior on the part of the state or ruling class. The lasting damage comes when attitudes promulgated to foster temporary political or economic conditions long outlast their expediency and become imbedded in social attitudes as racism and prejudice.

Over the past decade, Iíve been forming a view of slavery as the primary enabling institution for the founding of the American state -- thatís the big, dirty secret that we are almost incapable of facing in our culture today. In historical terms, slavery can be seen as a purely economic issue. In order to capitalize on the abundant natural resources of the New World, Americans needed cheap labor, and the slave trade founded by the imperial European powers fit the bill perfectly. Slaves were central to the establishment of an Atlantic trading network which balanced access to markets with the transport of raw materials from the New World to Europe: rum, tobacco, sugar, spices, and other commodities.

Slavery facilitated the rise of the Industrial Revolution by providing the labor that harvested the raw materials in the New World for manufactured goods in Europe, and with the rise f the cotton industry, in America. This perspective is at distinct odds with our romantic view of American history. For instance, we werenít taught in school that the U.S. was one of the last countries to outlaw slavery, and then only under the threat of total dissolution of the nation during the Civil War.

The Slavery in New York part of the exhibition at MoAD includes nine illustrated panels and a multimedia piece that gives a brief overview of the history of slavery in New York. One of the events that triggered a renewed interest in slavery n New York was the unearthing of extensive slave burial sites during construction of a downtown skyscraper. The shocking physical archaeological evidence of the prevalence of slaves in the Northern ďfreeĒ state of New York led to further inquiry and research. New York Cityís primary reason for existence was and is economic, and slaves were central to the rapid economic growth of the richest and largest Atlantic port in the country, as well as to the rest of the U.S.

To give Slavery: InHuman History local relevance, a few documents on loan from the Solano County Archives, City of San Jose, and the California Historical Society are a key part of the exhibition. Manumission papers (documents granting a slave his freedom) for one Adam Willis of Solano County, as well as county recorder records (slaves were considered private property, and were documented like land and livestock) paint a sketchy but intriguing picture of the life of a California slave in the 1850s. As Eduardo Pineda, MoADís director of Education explained to me, even though California entered the U.S. as a free state, the federal laws were implemented unevenly over a number of years, and slavery was actually practiced in many locations in the state.

Also supplementing the material from Slavery in New York are two MoAD permanent exhibitions, Slavery Passages and Toussaint LíOverture: Heartbeat of Freedom. Slavery Passages is an audio piece that contains the frequently chilling dramatizations of the voices and narratives of slaves, including a modern day slave Francis Bok, a Dinka tribesman and former Sudanese slave turned abolitionist. Together with other supplemental material on human trafficking, forced prostitution, child soldiers, and related topics, Slavery: InHuman History clearly illustrates that slavery is alive and flourishing in many parts of the world today, itís just doing business under different names.

This exhibition helps to bring slavery out of its historical closet, and gently sandblasts the decades, even centuries of denial from its surface so that we can begin to piece together a fuller, more realistic view of our past as the mightiest but most brutal power on the globe. Understanding that the foundations of our great nation rests on this vicious and pervasive form of oppression is a sobering and quite necessary step in seeing ourselves as a culture and gradually evolving into a more harmonious and unified people.

Slavery: InHuman History
Through April 30
Museum of the African Diaspora