Legacy of slavery

A San Francisco Chronicle review of a new exhibit, “Inhuman History,” at the Museum of the African Diaspora, takes an interesting look at America’s legacy of slavery from the point of view of commercialism.

Though the museum is in San Francisco, Russell Banks gets a mention, as does the state of New York. Here’s a bit from that review:

From grade school on, we are taught about slavery as an abhorrent chapter in the country’s past. Textbooks, movies, novels, historical studies and slave narratives that are still coming to light have richly portrayed slavery’s profound insult and human misery. Abolitionists have remained attractive figures to contemporary writers such as Russell Banks (“Cloudsplitter”), filmmaker Steven Spielberg (“Amistad”), opera composer Kirke Mechem (“John Brown”) and many others. Even period works like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that were once regarded as hopelessly heavy-handed have come in for reconsideration. John Updike recently compared Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book favorably, for its comprehension of race, with Mark Twain’s American masterpiece, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

“Inhuman History” comes at its subject from a different angle, by rooting it in the essentially commercial nature of American culture. In the first of eight panels at MoAD drawn from the “Slavery in New York” show organized by the New York Historical Society, a business letter from New Netherlands Director-General Peter Stuyvesant is identified as the “smoking gun” that fostered the rise of slavery in New Amsterdam (later New York). A photograph of present-day Manhattan identifies the early land grants that supported the slave trade. The city’s present affluence is built on the past.

A short film sustains the argument. New York never aspired to be a refuge or some “shining city on the hill,” we’re told. It was always, with its attractive harbor and other natural assets, a center of commerce and striving. Slavery is one inevitable link in “New York’s enormous significance in the global economy.”

For the full article, go here.


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