What curious things we do with history, no? On the one hand, the United States (by no means an exception, here) is so much a culture of forgetting. We’d rather imagine the pain of the past to be from another world entirely (it’s not) than engage in a difficult conversation. On the other hand, there is stuff like this: the (re-) sailing of the Amistad, retracing the old slave trade route. That seems like a desire to remember. How couldn’t that (re-) sailing remember? Forgetfulness and the desire to remember. Both typical and unexpected. At the same time.
Just a couple of short notes…
Huh. So, is this happening as a sort of fun event? To see what it was really like? The virtual character of it all is obvious in the fact that reporting of the “voyage” makes constant reference to the Spielberg film (blurbed on the cover as “unforgettable, and that’s complex). You know that film, the one with that guy who always plays the African in blockbusters. You can almost hear that in the write-ups.
We’ve also gotten pretty good at disengaging re-enactment from remembering. Civil War re-enactors on the Confederate side don’t seem all that troubled about embodying sacrifice for the “peculiar institution” of enslaving millions of humans. The folks at Colonial Williamsburg seem pretty comfortable playing all sorts of, um, uncomfortable roles. (I really do wonder if it is always the case, though.) All the pictures in this post are of Colonial Williamsburg re-enactments, by the way. Do they feel a little icky?
At the same time, there is some testimony in all these write-ups about how the “voyage” inspires young people to do good things. I get that. And I like that. Really, who’s against young people being inspired to do good things? I’m not. I do wonder where the older people might be, you know, those people thinking about what a terrible thing their ancestors did. Or the serious consideration of how their ancestors survived so many frankly un-survivable things in the Americas. Etc. But that’s just idealism. I know. Still, you set sail with such a traumatic memory onboard and I start hoping for more serious reckoning.
The virtual or spectacular character – which is really inseparable from the projection of certain fantasies onto a memorial event – is in no small part connected to the geography of the voyage. Every article I read on this voyage tracked the sail from Connecticut to Sierra Leone. Then there is the occasional mention, in close, of the “return” to the U.S., which is a totally different kind of journey.
Going to Africa from the Americas mimics, whether we think of it exactly like this or not, a relation of forgiveness. In remembering the slave-trade, we go back to Africa, as if to offer ourselves back to Africa. To remember and witness to Africa. Are we implicitly staging a request to forgive? Or is this just a coincidence of reporting’s emphasis?
To emphasize the journey from Africa to the U.S., on the other hand, would open up the obvious and discomforting question: who is on the ship for that journey? Is the white person on the ship occupying the place of the enslaver? Is the black person on the ship recalling the slave? What happens when you cross into that space in which the violent rebellion took place? Sure, that’s all virtual and at the level of image, on one glance. Then again, the power of memory is precisely that it can recall pain to the moment. Would you really want to be on that boat returning from Africa? If so, get ready for some crazy ghosts. Memory can haunt re-enactments in ways we don’t quite want or welcome.
Crazy ghosts? I’m being too fearful, I fear. Maybe we ought to register that unwelcome ghost. It is our history, after all.
So I’ve decided to re-imagine this sailing of the Amistad. Indulge me. I imagine it provoking in all of us a lot of contemplation, namely, around what it means to be founded – both as a nation and as a continent – on such a profoundly catastrophic wound. And what it means for the victims to have died so many deaths, and to have, on this very ship, had a moment of resistance. At the moment of the ship’s arrival back in the U.S., we have a mandated moment of silence, nationally. In that silence, we begin to process the memories and what those memories might mean for our future. Not how to forget, necessarily, but rather how we can better remember in ways that make painful pasts a part of our future(s). The “Freedom” in its new name “Freedom Schooner Amistad” then comes to mean a freedom from forgetting, rather than a freedom from the past.
Alas. I’m not getting my hopes up. Just sayin’.