What would a memorial to slavery look like? What story would it tell? What function would we want it to serve?
I thought about these questions this past weekend, attending parts of “The Future of the African American Past,” a state-of-the-field conference for black history organized by the NEH, the AHA, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Among the highlights of the conference for me was a panel on Slavery and Freedom, presented as a way to assess the enduring value of John Hope Franklin’s “slavery to freedom” paradigm as the organizing framework for African American history. In exploring that theme, panelists highlighted recent trends in this scholarship and started conversations about framing historical subjects as well as how people remember the past.
The panel examined the Civil-War-era process of emancipation and also slavery and freedom as distinct, intertwined experiences in the nineteenth century. Brenda Stevenson described the ways freedmen and women formalized marriages, analyzing the legal and emotional power that these rituals held for African Americans’ lives. Thavolia Glymph pushed against the prevailing tendency among historians to emphasize the shortfalls and problems of freedom. Glymph urged the audience to remember that while emancipation was not a simple end to black suffering, it did make a tremendous difference in the lives of freedpeople and in the nation’s legal and social structures.
I was particularly struck by the ideas running through presentations by Walter Johnson and Annette Gordon-Reed. Johnson pointed to the limits of our understandings of enslaved peoples’ internal lives, encouraging more work on the contours and varied possibilities of enslaved humanity. He also talked about the important, growing emphasis on slavery as part of the capitalist economy of the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. Annette Gordon-Reed offered thoughts on recent debates concerning memorialization and the public memory of the past. Her presentation tied the other scholars’ ideas to NMAAHC’s mission of bringing black history to the public. I was curious about how historians might bring together histories on vastly different scales—studying enslavement through individual lives and also through transnational economic systems—while also reshaping what people know about history through these approaches.
Together, the panelists offered a vision for how the museum might convey the complex history of slavery to visitors starting this Fall. Looking at slavery as a massive Atlantic economy does not necessarily mean ignoring the individuality of enslaved people; a key part of the humanity of enslaved individuals was their status as workers in an expansive capitalist economy. We can see that part of enslaved humanity in Solomon Northup’s narrative, a rich firsthand account of the work of the cotton industry, including the day-to-day labor that made cotton king and the brutality that planters imposed in an effort to keep that system running. We might also see this in the life of Moses Grandy, who worked for years navigating boats in the Chesapeake. Grandy arranged with his owner to earn money and purchase his freedom. Twice he purchased himself and twice his profit-seeking owners pocketed the agreed-upon sum and refused to allow Grandy his costly freedom. There are plenty of avenues to convey individual enslaved humanity and the centrality of the broader system of slavery to developments in massive Atlantic economies. The project for the museum is to marshal stories that help people see black enslavement and freedom as endlessly complex struggles and processes.