Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

African-American Museum will deal with slavery, but won’t be a Black Holocaust Museum

June 10, 1994


Newhouse News Service 

WASHINGTON – Kean College student Rhonda Moseley-Holmes was there in November when the Nation of Islam’s Khallid Abdul Muhammad put her little-known New Jersey school on the map with his depiction of Jews as enslavers and exploiters who just might have had the Holocaust coming.

And she was here in May, when members of the Kean College community, by special invitation, visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum, which tells a quite different story of Jews as the ultimate victims of undiluted evil.

Today, Moseley-Holmes, 26, is still synthesizing the two experiences. She remains inclined to believe most of what Muhammad said, “because he’s my people.” And yet she is impressed with the Holocaust Museum’s presentation of Jewish suffering.

“My only resentment about the Holocaust Museum is that there is not another one dealing with slavery,” she said. “When it comes to blacks, there is always something that is stopping us.”

As it happens, that appears less true as of this week. Overcoming the previous objections of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., the Senate Rules Committee Thursday sent to the floor legislation, which has already passed the House, authorizing the Smithsonian to create a National African American Museum at the site of the Arts and Industries Building on the Mall.

But anyone expecting a Black Holocaust Museum will be disappointed.

Those planning the museum say that while it will deal with slavery, it needs to be a much fuller and broader examination of the African-American experience, historically, socially and culturally. They say that anything more solely focused on slavery would do an injustice to the black experience in America and to young black people in search of their identity in particular.

“People have to understand that we were more than slaves when we came over here and we were more than slaves after the end of the Civil War,” said John Fleming, executive director of the National Afro-American Museum in Wilberforce, Ohio. Fleming is part of the task force planning the new Smithsonian museum.

“It should not be a slavery museum,” said another task force member, Temple University’s Molefi Kete Asante, probably the nation’s most influential Afrocentric scholar.

This prevailing view among the broad range of mostly black scholars and museum professionals involved in planning the new museum runs counter to mounting grassroots interest in creating a museum that would, in essence, match the Holocaust Museum in its stark portrayal of a people’s tragic encounter with evil.

It has been the huge popular and critical success of the Holocaust Museum in the little more than a year it has been open, and coincidentally the huge popular and critical success of the movie, “Schindler’s List,” that have together fully enshrined in a secure and special place in the American psyche the systematic slaughter of European Jewry. The Holocaust is generally perceived as the museum intended it to be. It is, said Michael Berenbaum, the director of the museum’s Holocaust Research Institute, not just another case of man’s inhumanity to man, but rather “the paradigmatic manifestation of evil.”

Confirming this thinking, the states of New Jersey and Florida in recent months have joined California and Illinois in mandating Holocaust studies in the public schools. Another dozen states recommend such programs of study.

While this attention to the Holocaust evidently has broad public and political support, it has also encountered something of backlash – fanned by Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan – from some within the black community.

Their grievance is that if any group should be the American exemplar of deprivation and oppression it should be black people, who were brought here against their will as slaves and have been discriminated against ever since, or perhaps American Indians, who were largely wiped out in the European conquest of the continent, and not the Jewish community, which has found an increasingly comfortable and prosperous home in America in the half century since the Holocaust.

That very success in America has compounded the resentment. The success has given the Jewish community the money and influence to create the museum, the movie and the political and intellectual climate that has helped the Holocaust secure its hallowed place.

While this resentment is most virulent among those who have cheered the direct attacks on Jews by Muhammad and Farrakhan, it is by no means confined to them.

Writing in the Bergen Record in March, Walter Fields, political action director of the New Jersey NAACP, referred to what he says was “the notion, among many African-Americans, that somehow Jews have cornered the market on suffering. In defense of such claims, blacks point to institutional support in the form of the Holocaust Museum as an indication of the Jewish community’s ability to plant its history in the nation’s consciousness.”

Fields went on to argue against New Jersey mandating Holocaust studies. “It is,” he wrote, “inappropriate and insulting for elected officials to elevate in importance the atrocities suffered by one group over those of all others by legislative fiat.”

Others have argued that the Holocaust Museum should really be in Germany and that the holocaust more properly memorialized on the Mall should be that experienced right here in America by black people.

But, the counterargument goes, the Holocaust Museum is on the Mall in Washington, and not in Germany, for much the same reason that there is no National Museum of Slavery on the Mall: Examining the evil within that promoted and permitted slavery in America is a bit more complicated and sensitive than exposing the horrors of Nazi Germany an ocean away

“Asking America to condemn itself is as if the Germans had been called upon to create the Holocaust Museum,” Asante said.

Slavery was, after all, not an incidental, regrettable chapter in American life. It was, as the University of Chicago’s Robert William Fogel, a leading scholar of slavery, said, “the moral dilemma that impaled leaders of the American Revolution” to a degree that is as yet difficult if not impossible to adequately explain to young citizens in training.

Eight of the nation’s first 12 presidents were slaveholders.

Thomas Jefferson is commonly portrayed as an enlightened, anguished slaveowner, but University of Mississippi historian Winthrop Jordan said in his classic text, “White Over Black,” that it was still Jefferson who provided “the most intense, extensive, and extreme formulation of anti-Negro ‘thought’ offered by any American in the thirty years after the Revolution.”

By 1860, said William Strickland, the head of the African-American studies department at the University of Massachusetts, “the United States was the greatest slaveholding nation in the history of the world.”

And even today, the villains and the victims in this story, or at any rate their progeny, are not somebody else. They are us.

“Walking into an African-American museum, all of the American visitors are either direct descendants of slaves, many of the Southerners are direct descendants of slaveowners, and all of us are living directly with the consequences of slavery,” Berenbaum said. He advises that the museum not be too heavy handed, that it give people room to reach their own conclusions.

“You have to make sure not to lecture people, not to give them a stern warning,” he said.

“It would be great if we could make the people involved in the Middle Passage (of slaves across the Atlantic) feel guilty,” said Claudine Brown, who was named in 1989 to coordinate planning for the new museum. “One of the good things that happened for the Jewish people was that they had the Nuremberg trials. They were actually able to confront some of the people (responsible for the Holocaust) and I think that is very, very powerful.”

But, Brown said, “We can’t do that. The defendants in this case are no longer with us and I will tell you in my recent trips to Africa, some of the younger people visiting Elmina castle in Ghana (where captured slaves were held pending shipment to America) are beginning to ask the young Africans who are the tour guides, ‘Why did your people sell them into slavery?’ That young person hasn’t got a clue. He may speculate but he doesn’t know.

“Do we hold him responsible? Or do we make sure that nothing like that ever happens again?” Brown asked. Her answer: “I don’t believe that the museum is the place where the whole notion of reparations can be played out effectively.”

Still, John Hope Franklin, the dean of American black studies scholarship, believes that America has yet even to begin to come to terms with how much daily life for black Americans – whether it is their higher unemployment rate or their slower service at Denny’s – is a direct legacy of slavery

Franklin supports former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder’s call for the creation of a national museum of slavery in Jamestown. “We really ought to have one in every community. Maybe then whites would learn what it means to be black in 1994, as well as in 1694.”

Guided by the same impulse, Harvard University physiologist S. Allen Counter has created an American Slavery Memorial Committee, which wants to build in Washington, D.C. – and as many other cities as possible – a granite replica of the lower deck of a crowded slave ship as a memorial to those who died and toiled as slaves.

But Russell Adams, who directs the African-American history program at Howard University, cautions that in all this it should be remembered that the story of black America is ultimately one of struggle and triumph, however difficult and uneven.

“We now have 32 million black folks and 10 million under poverty, instead of 90 percent of them under poverty,” Adams said. And, he said, it is the story of the capacity of the Constitution, written by slaveholders like Jefferson, to adapt and ultimately enable that triumph.

“The juice is still in that Constitution, but you’ve got to squeeze it with these movements,” Adams said.

There remain concerns among some that the museum will inevitably mute the harsh truths of the black experience, that it will not be the equal of the Holocaust Museum in seeing and speaking the truth.

“The people who are in control of the Holocaust Museum are the people who have the greatest feeling for what went wrong and will work to see that everyone understands the horror visited upon this people to see that it does not happen again,” said Tom Mack, the president of Tourmobile in Washington, who first enlisted congressional support for a national museum on the Mall nearly a decade ago.

“I think the Smithsonian simply hasn’t the heart or the soul to deal forthrightly with the entirety of African-American history,” Mack said. “I think that is also true of the American public generally.”

Claudine Brown believes Mack is wrong. She has seen no evidence of interference from above, and doubts there will be any.

For her part, Rhonda Moseley-Holmes, who is studying communications and criminal justice at Kean College, hopes that the Smithsonian museum sets a new tone for, and emphasis on, the discussion of black history, which she said was missing from most of her public education in New Jersey.

“I would really like to see that museum, and see it have as many people visit it as the Holocaust Museum,” she said.


Written by jonathantilove

July 26, 2022 at 1:51 am

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