Reconnecting With Slavery

Yesterday I took my sons to Chicago's Field Museum. They loved every moment of the experience, from the mummies to the meteorites. Or rather, they loved almost every moment. They totally freaked out over the simulated slave ship in the Africa exhibit.

Actually, I should also include myself in the freak out. I just wasn't mentally or emotionally prepared to go into a simulated slave ship hold and neither were they.

There we were, innocently walking through the exhibit, checking out various cultural artifacts from lots of different countries: drums, spears, knives, walking sticks, hairpins and religious iconography -- and then all of the sudden there on one of the walls was this paragraph detailing how slavery stole away so much from the civilizations that had created such beauty. Then, before I knew it, we were at the entrance to what looked like a dark tunnel. Except, it wasn't a tunnel. It was the entrance to the hold of the simulated slave ship.

My four year-old began crying and screaming in terror. My seven year-old clutched my hand and said, "I don't think we should go in there. It looks evil in there."

I tried to take a step forward but neither one would budge. More tears and them crying, "No, no! Don't make us go in there, mommy!"

The fear in their voices made me think about the fear that millions of African children must have experienced as they were forced onto slave ships. I couldn't ask my sons, "What are you afraid of?" because how could they not be afraid? They have not hardened their hearts to the complete blood-soaked and immoral horror that lays claim to our past. In their minds is neither the blase intellectualization of slavery nor an attitude that it all happened years ago so there's no reason to still talk about it.

As I listened to my sons beg me not to take them onto the slave ship, their comments and questions made me realize they'd forgotten that we were merely in a museum. They were really worried that they were really about to be sold into slavery and if they got onto the "ship" they'd never see our families again.

I reassured them that this was not the case and after a few minutes, we proceeded to step through the "hold" of the ship. We moved quickly through. Even though it was simulated it did make me feel like some sort of door was going to clang shut. This photo is my eldest after going through the ship. He'd been crying:I asked him what he was thinking about and he said, "I don't wanna be a slave. Ever." I think he sees himself in those pictures, sees his ancestor's faces reflected back to him.

I am glad he wasn't born 150 years ago. I'm glad we can walk through a simulated slave ship and come out the other side, not as property to be sold, but as ourselves.


1969 said…
Puts the experience into perspective when you see the actual ship and the fear on your children's faces. Slavery was truly an abomination. (And your oldest is very handsome).
Anonymous said…
And let's not forget that slavery still exists all over the world, just maybe on a smaller scale. From Haitian children sent across the border to be servants to West African children toiling on cocoa plantations to Indonesian women being abused by their employers in Saudi Arabia and on Long Island.

As always I will be looking to you when time comes to broach this subject with my own son.
thailandchani said…
I think your son was right... there was something evil in there. I can't imagine how it could be otherwise.

This also makes me think about a concept I haven't considered for a while. Genetic memory. The memories of ancestors passed through genetics.

Your sons' reactions sounded so consistent with that.

Sharifa makes a very good point, too. It's still happening.

When human beings can be exploited by other human beings, it doesn't leave me with much faith in humanity.
Jameil said…
i'm glad we can, too. i just saw a piece on haitian and indian? bangladesi? slave children the other day on abc. and it happens to immigrants to america, too. you're doing a lot of thinking up there in the chi, liz. i like it.
Liz Dwyer said…
It really does put it all into perspective because we were trippin' and there weren't even any people beating us with whips and putting us in chains. How terrifying the whole experience must have been, worse than we can even imagine. -- And that boy definitely has the best eyelashes. I'm jealous.

Yes, sadly, forms of slavery do still exist, but thank goodness not on the scale it used to. Eradicating it from existence can't happen till people truly believe that everyoen else is their equal, all part of one human family. Sigh.

The idea of genetic memory is a fascinating one. I often think about that when I'm nervous or afraid in certain situations and I don't quite know why. I do believe humanity can get it right if we want to and if we put our collective futures/fortunes ahead of the individual ones. Hopefully in our lifetimes, right?

Yeah, the whole agricultural industry in California is pretty much run like a plantation and the folks picking our strawberries and lettuce -- they aren't getting whipped by an overseer, but it's pretty bad. And yeah, I am definitely doing a whole lot of thinking here. It's generating a lot of "stuff".
Unknown said…
Wow, I have not taken mine to that exhibit yet. We went to the remake of the "Amistad" in Navy Pier a few years back, and at that time my boys were around the same age as yours are now. It truly makes the soul bleed that this had to be endured. And these memories are like a blister, more reason to uplift our young men.

I am really thankful for your gift in relating things to us, I always feel our ancestors reach out to us but you really validated that.
Anonymous said…
I had a similar experience going through the Salem Witch Trials Museum as a kid, wondering if any of my ancestors had been burned at the stake in the name of religion. I wonder if one day we will ever live down the horrors we are responsible for in history.
Very deep post Liz.

And you are's wasn't that long ago that legal slavery ended in this country. We're talking 2 generations.
Jen said…
I think a combination of genetic memory and sheer horror of the experience would be enough to throw most sensible children.

Sharifa's point is well taken, too, and so is yours, along with NYC's.

Slavery and genocide are the two greatest human horrors IMHO.
Here in the town I live in we have a Slave Relics Museum, actually. Living where I do,it's hard to avoid the notion of slavery in America's past, since I live within 40 miles of several historic plantations, including Pon Pon, Bonny Doone, Middleton Place, Magnolia Place, Drayton Hall, and Boone Hall. Boone Hall is where many parts of the miniseries "North & South" was filmed, as was Alex Haley's "Queen". I myself was married in front of the mansion during a Scottish festival, and when we turned away from the mansion and looked down the famous Avenue of the Oaks, along the right side you could see several of the original slave quarters. As an homage to their memory, we then jumped a bessom broom, which is an old African (as well as Scots) tradition.
Sundry said…
Broke my heart a little. What an expressive photo of your son. He's lucky to have you to help him understand.
Oh, God, how awful. Children live in the here-and-now. There is no separation between then and today, and although sadly, they need to know the history, it must have been so very painful for you to introduce them to it so graphically.

I was in Charleston, SC once, and stood outside a building on the shore where slave ships once docked. The auction block was still in front of it, and I could actually feel the pain and fear and horror of the people who passed through there. I was unable to go inside.

I have always been an empath, but that experience stands out as the most intense I have ever had. All these years later, the air was still thick with the tears of those miserable people who were living through the kind of horror no soul should ever know. Such evil is absolutely tangible and remains in the air forever, perhaps as a reminder that we must never again allow human beings to be enslaved.
Liz Dwyer said…
Definitely go if you get the chance. I wish I'd been able to catch the Amistad but we weren't in town ever when it was there. The memories are like a blister... and I'm reading The Known World right now. It all has this on the forefront of my mind.

I'd love to see that museum one day. The whole witchcraft accusation thing just makes my skin crawl. I definitely think I'd be among those getting burned at the stake if I'd been alive back then. We can't live it down but we can make it right in the future.

I know, only two generations is nothing in the grand scheme of time. It's like a blip, a nanosecond.

Truly such great horrors. We have to make it right for the future so the same things are not just repeated over and over.

They are definitely sensible kids most of the time! Me on the other hand... ;)

That's really something that you have access to so many of the old plantations and museums. No way to completely ignore the presence and history of slavery then, is there? Up north we just don't have that sort of physical evidence, the tangible daily reminders. And very cool that you all jumped the broom, too. I'm always fascinated by how two seemingly different cultures can share a commonality like broom jumping. BTW, I'm still dying laughing over your BONG email about Amy Lee from Evanescence. That was so darn funny!
Liz Dwyer said…
I didn't too many photos in that part of the exhibit, but his anguish just really struck me. He was leaned back against that wall, just completely floored by what he'd just experienced. I don't think I've ever seen him like that.

Going to this exhibit made me realize that even though my boys knew about slavery before, they only knew in an academic, clinical sense. I don't think it was completely real for them. Now it's real. I don't know if I could experience the "real" sites of slavery-related atrocities. The "fake" version was so emotional for me (and my boys). I totally think what happened leaves an energy in places. But I suppose feeling that pain and energy is what is due to those that suffered.
Miz JJ said…
That would be tough, but I am glad that you encouraged and supported them through it.

Your son is such a cutie!
"I don't wanna be a slave...ever!"
That's heavy. Maybe I'll bring a couple of my Republican "house negro" friends to that ship. Hopefully, they'll get from it what your oldest did.
Miriam said…

That must have been so so intense!

Something all of you will never forget. And it was so cute, such a tear jerker that they cried out like that. Almost as if their lips were mouthing the unended /unavenged cries of those who were taken. With the same fear invoked, the same words said (just different language).

Too deep.
Anonymous said…
Fantastic article, how moving!! I didn't even know they had such an exhibit that is really a good thing. Even if it is horrible it is important to remember what has happened and never ever let it happen again anywhere.
Ian Lidster said…
A firsthand encounter with a disgraceful bit of history. No doubt it was traumatizing in itself. Yet, we must never forget that it existed and, as sharifa suggests, it still exists in some parts of the world and we seem to do little about it.
A powerful blog, Liz.
Ms Angela said…

I want to take MY kids to that museum. And they are 27, 25 and 22! EVERY person of African descent should visit a slave museum. We need to remember from whence we came, and take pride in how they managed to survive. It's horrible to face but so necessary for our emotional, mental and spiritual healing. In fact, I'm working on an idea that came to me concerning healing of that type.

Your son's expression really says it all.

And before I forget, Chani brought up genetic memory of our ancestors. I'd like to look into that more. When my children were very young, I took them to a concert that featured a lot of popular singers and musicians from different countries in Africa. the finale featured all of the performers dancing in their native dress to a gigantic "talking" drum. The beat that drum made was thunderous! I felt it in my heart, and I started crying uncontrollably. My kids all jumped up out of their seats and started dancing. When the concert was over, my oldest daughter said to me, "Mommy, I felt like that drum was talking to me!"

None of my kids remember attending this concert. But all three of them LOVE African music. Genetic memory is amazing.
Shiona said…
Wow, I can imagine what you guys were feeling headed into the simulated hold. I think we are still instinctively aware of what happened. I like how you said that you guys were able to walk out of it at the end. This is definitely something I would take my son to but I think I should wait until he's older. Maybe 5th or 6th grade?
jillybean said…
Powerful experience on so many levels. I got goosebumps just reading about it. That should be a traveling exhibit that visits schools and various cities. The Smithsonian should definitely have it.
Liz Dwyer said…
I haven't forgotten about your comments but no time to reply! Hopefully later.
Anonymous said…
I can't think of anything better to say than, "YES"

They will fight for freedom in their lives - theirs and others. That's the most honorable way to live.
Anonymous said…
Oh my heart just sank.

I remember being given details about the Holocaust when I was about 9 or 10 and not sleeping for weeks. I lived in terror, I'm still keenly aware that the world hates Jews.
Unknown said…
"I don't ever want to be a slave..."

ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, this made me cry!

(here via ARP)

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