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Slave narratives



The Great Blacks in Wax Museum


Entering the chamber of horrors.
"Great Blacks in Wax Museum." Neda and I must have laughed every time we read those words. It would be our first trip together as partners and we cracked jokes the whole time to Baltimore, MD about the peculiar name of this museum we were about to visit. Turns out the museum is no laughing matter, even if the name still gives me the giggles. Touring the museum is a searing and emotional experience, and one I have trouble writing about, because it deals with a subject that's so horrifying I can't even begin to try and describe it. But try I will, because the legacy of slavery still haunts America in so many ways.

When we first entered the museum, we were escorted to a big model ship. Outside the ship were three wax figures: One was of a man chained and standing on an auction block; the other was a completely naked, screaming woman whose forehead stood inches from a piping hot iron held by a mean-looking man. I looked at the figures and felt disgusted. My head spun with questions. The scene depicted what happened to the Africans before they boarded the slave ship. But how did Africans get to the auction block and the hot iron in the first place? Why was it that Europeans enslaved Africans and not the other way around?

The fact is, slavery was a very complicated process. When the first blacks arrived in the colonies in the 1600s, they were indentured servants, treated about the same as indentured white servants and could even buy property when freed. The notion of judging or distinguishing people based on skin color did not yet exist. But as Daphne and Neda detailed in earlier dispatches, the opportunity to get rich off of tobacco was too alluring for the European colonists to pass up. Tobacco requires a lot of hard labor. Native Americans were unacceptable because they knew the land too well and could easily rebel. The Europeans needed a passive population they could control. So they looked to that strange and foreign continent called Africa, and in the process, changed forever the definition of slavery and introduced the concept that still gives us fits: race.

Slavery has always existed since ancient times and in fact, existed in Africa. But African slavery was very different than what the Europeans would come up with in the seventeenth century. Africans usually took slaves as prisoners of war, but slaves were allowed to own property and marry and eventually become just another member of the tribe. Some historians think African slavery was more akin to European serfdom.

The Europeans introduced the idea of chattel slavery, that is, forcing human beings into lifelong, permanent bondage and treating them like inhuman objects. Chattel slavery also meant that your children were automatic slaves, no matter who the father was. Now putting into practice something as brutal and atrocious as chattel slavery is kind of hard to justify. None of the European slave traders probably thought of themselves as bad or evil people. Many called themselves Christian and would name their slave ships after Jesus. But in order to still think of themselves as good people, they had to make the Africans into bad people who deserved to be enslaved. Thus, they began to think that the Africans' dark skin color meant they were less valuable than whites, an inferior and primitive people compared to the Europeans. These ideas are still with us today.

Shackled together in the ship
The Africans were caught completely off guard by the Europeans' new attitudes and intentions. Some tribes had worked with Europeans and developed trade relations. They had no idea that the relationships had been transformed by the demands of colonialism in North America. Little by little, Africans found their whole societies falling apart. First, family members would discover loved ones missing. Later, groups of people working out in the fields would one day vanish and never be seen again. Then came the Long March to the Sea, a tortuous journey that could be up to 1000 miles long where kidnapped Africans walked from the interior of the continent to the coast. Up to half of the Africans did not survive this initial journey. Starvation was common and people who died were left on the trail.

If they survived that journey, the Africans could then spend a year awaiting their shipment to the "New World." Neda details those horrible conditions in her dispatch on the Henrietta Marie. The unspeakably sad scene in front of me in the museum represents the point of departure for the Africans. Watching the naked woman get branded with a hot iron and staring at the man about to be sold apart from his family left me grief-stricken. Little did I know what awaited me inside the ship.

I made my way down the steps, trying to visualize what it must have been like for an African slave to leave his homeland forever, unaware of what fate awaited him at the end of the trip. I was then assaulted with the most gruesome, heartwrenching noises I have ever heard in my life. All around me, I heard moaning, crying, screaming, wailing. I looked up and found myself in the dark interiors of the ship's slave quarters. Straight ahead was a bloodied head (fake, but it sure looked real). The slave traders were very afraid that the Africans would either rebel or commit suicide so they tried to implement a "breaking in" process. Any rebellious African would have his head cut off and displayed to discourage others from following his example. According to Africans, a body must be completely intact, especially the head, if the spirit is to find a safe rest back home. The Europeans exploited this belief to the fullest.

The cut-off head and the nauseating noises were only the beginning. Of course being in a museum exhibit versus experiencing the real thing are hugely different things, but this was as close as I was ever going to get to feeling like a slave. The female slave quarters were directly below the rooms of the officers and crew. This was so they could have easy access to the females to satisfy their sexual desires. It was not uncommon for girls as young as 8 years old to be raped repeatedly.

The conditions were equally horrible for children.
Besides seeing crew members raping women, I saw how closely packed together the men were. If you lied down, you only had about 4 inches of space above you. There would be buckets placed in the corners to use for restrooms, but being shackled to 6 people didn't make it easy to get there. Most of the time, the Africans sat and slept in their own blood, urine and feces. As many as half of the Africans would not survive this journey, often called the Middle Passage.

I finally escaped from the clutches of the ship, relieved that I had the freedom to do that, mourning the fact that millions of people had not. This was history in its rawest and most depressing form. I could see why some people, including African Americans, would prefer that the exhibition not exist because it's so achingly sad. So why do we need to hear about it? I, for one, think it's because we haven't heard enough about it. The African slave trade to me is the most underreported event in human history given the millions of people that died before, during and after the Middle Passage. The week before I went to Baltimore, I had visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC with Teddy. I remarked about how great it was that there was such a beautiful museum to speak about the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust, but why was there no comparable museum about the Black Holocaust, which, after all, is one of America's original sins?

A week later in Baltimore, I had found an answer to my question. The Great Blacks in Wax Museum is dedicated to presenting African American history that is truthful, blunt and does not hold anything back. It is not for those who prefer their history "sanitized." Though there are other African American museums in the country, none will match Great Blacks in Wax in terms of candor and honesty. Their slave ship exhibition is proof of that.

So who are the incredible people behind this project? Dr. Joanne Martin and her husband Elmer seventeen years ago formed the idea of having a wax museum to honor African American history. Their vision has taken seventeen long years of struggle to become a reality and they have made enormous financial sacrifices in pursuit of their dream. I asked Dr. Martin why she was so passionate about the museum and committed to showing the less-than-flattering aspects of our history. She responded by telling the story of the young boy who wanted to retake a Polaroid picture of himself because the first one made him look "too dark." She talked about the young black college students she met who had no interest in black history but simply wanted to make money. "This is only a generation or two after the civil rights movement and the Black Consciousness movement where we said 'Black is Beautiful,'" she explained. "After a lot of soul-searching, we realized we had failed to institutionalize our history and that because of that, each generation was bound to forget and we would have to start all over."

With over 200,000 visitors a year, the museum is having an impact. It certainly had a profound effect on me, as I was forced to confront and make sense of the slave trade in ways I desperately wish I didn't have to. But it's something we all as Americans, and human beings, need to ponder and consider, but most of all, to remember.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - Long, lazy summer days? Not for these teens!
Kevin - Gullah? A new slang word or a whole other language?
Daphne - Sing out strong and loud! I speak Gullah, and I'm proud!
Rebecca - Sacred African burial grounds in Manhattan
Stephanie - The Natchez Indians give the old heave-ho to the French
Rebecca - Mose, Florida: Paradise among mosquitoes and tropical heat
Neda - Dive! Dive! Discover the secrets of the Henrietta Marie
MAD - Reparations: Payback for slavery
Nick - The rebellion is on!