Becoming un-human @ the new EJI Museum
In September 2021, I visited the Equal Justice Initiative’s (EJI) new Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and was struck by the range of artifacts used to chronicle each American era till today. After the Middle Passage — a term that suddenly feels small — the second exhibit shows busts of captured Africans placed on the ground.
The busts/people are sat on both sides of a wide pebble-stone path, meaning visitors are hovering over these varied faces as they appear to be marched to death, judging from the slink in their shoulders and looks on many of their faces. They have NO IDEA of what’s to come.
Several busts are in clusters, for example, four or five folks of similar height ‘wear’ thick iron collars welded together along a stiff bar. Only a few had iron helmets — like an iron maiden — but each bust is a metal-head of some sort. Many were linked by chains. Any visible wrists were bound with thick, heavy, rusty shackles, braces and contraptions designed to impede, not totally hinder movement.
On one side were more clusters of women. With their more articulated hairstyles, attire and scarification, it was clearer that these people were an amalgamation of different ethnicities. The hairstyles are beautiful, as is the menagerie of patterns of scars, from simple slits beside the eyes, to elaborate patterns covering backs, shoulders, arms, foreheads, forearms, etc. The sheer diversity of patterns is its own unique amazing snapshot. I believe they will leave these scars behind, right here, and quickly pick up plenty of others.
As you trod along the stony road, you even begin to more closely inspect the vast differences in facial features. Some more round, flatter faces with no eye folds. Then others, slender, with angular faces and features.
From beady-headed to nappy to kinky to coyly to wavey hair.
The men and boys, sport all sorts of elaborate haircuts and styles. From twists, plaits, braids, and locks to elaborate patterns shaved into their low cuts. They real cool.
The women’s busts reveal far more cultural artifacts: neck, nose and ear jewelry for sure, but also an array of finely crafted hair jewelry, including beads of all sorts of materials from bones to seeds to wood, stone and metals. They’re beautiful and they know it. The girls have it, too. A few women are heavily pregnant (I know in the next exhibit, the next part of their journey, they’ll be breeding, so this was the “making of.”).
On closer inspection, surrounding the clusters of women, there are clusters of children, even small children, even a few kids holding babies in their tiny arms, one leaning on a pregnant woman. This is, perhaps, our first glimpse of hope. This ordinary solidarity will sustain generations to come against unimaginable odds and forms of dehumanization. We know many survive — this! (Sigh.)
These people will die soon or live out their lives enslaved.
The busts stand out between the other exhibits where status seems more clearly marked, even signposted. The first exhibit showed the vastness of the ocean and mapped the lucrativeness of human trafficking; the third showed the brutality of enslavement with which we’re more familiar, and the latter parts focus on Jim Crow — including lynching — and mass incarceration, with which we’re closer in chronological proximity and within living memory. In the distance we can see bits of the next exhibit — bars and cages — and from this distance, barely hear wailing, someone reaching for a humanity that remained… ignored… through the rest of the exhibits, too.
What’s more, at each turn we’re shown several individual and collective modes of resistance — including Black love — which in this context is uniquely potent. Black love is ‘radical’, as bell hooks has so crucially articulated throughout her body of work. The busts catch a very long-ago moment of capture.
More still, I’ve stood in the ‘door of no return’ on Gorée Isle with my mother — the westernmost tip of Africa — and seen the gory cells in which the newly enslaved were divided and shackled to the floor, waiting to be trafficked. Signs over each slave pin read: women, men, children, resistant/non-compliant. We know girls were kept separate, and why. Meanwhile, the Frenchmen, whose families would sometimes visit, slept safely just above their heads. Just like these busts, unbeknownst to them and the locals trading them, they were becoming chattel slaves, a type unseen before. This was their moment of transformation, of becoming un-human. For centuries forth, things fell apart.
Becoming the black gold of the son and the holy ghost.
The busts emerge from the floor, appearing grounded in a place from which they’re being ripped. In retrospect, it’s notable that there are no busts of captors, who must have been there, guiding the chains, ushering the transformation from human to slave, and for them, from human to enslaver.
The enslavers are present and prescient in the bust exhibit through their heavy tools, uniquely suited for capture, containment, and transportation. As a scientist, I am truly amazed at the sheer metallurgy needed for such specialized, detailed tools that are exactly fit for this purpose — only.
I spent nearly an hour standing over the busts journaling in my notebook (no phone usage permitted). The bust exhibit was truly encaptivating and warranted its own treatise. Each exhibit in the museum warrants its own visit, knowledge of which is increasingly excluded from our basic, shared historical curricula…and memory.