Torn Asunder

Enslaved Africans endured the largest forced migration in history

"Middle Passage." Could words be blander? They suggest a way out, reasonable progress, a moderate course. And yet the blandness conceals an infamy, for Middle Passage was the name given the forced journey across the Atlantic of millions of Africans who were kidnapped from their homes and carried into slavery in the Americas. This transferal of human cargo was one side of a sprawling triangle that described the shape of the transatlantic slave trade: traders first made their way from Europe to the west coast of Africa, where they often bartered items such as guns, brandy, linens and gold for human beings; in the middle passage, the Africans were conveyed across the sea; then, the goods produced by the slaves’ labor in the Americas—sugar, tobacco, cotton, cocoa, mahogany—were carried to markets in Europe. The process lends itself to a simple diagram in history books, but what horror lies behind that abstract rendering!

The reality is made unforgettably explicit in "Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas," an exhibition that can be seen through August at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture. The exhibition, which originated at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia, uses objects, documents, film and audio installations to help visitors comprehend, however imperfectly, the scale of the inhumanity at the core of four centuries of an economic, political and social transaction. The awful business implicated many nations besides America (Great Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands, among them), and indeed the vast majority of enslaved Africans were taken not to territory that is now the United States but to South America and the Caribbean.

The objects on exhibit range from the genteel (a porcelain mug espousing the abolitionist cause) to the brutal (a collar with triangular-shaped halves that fit around a slave’s neck and contained rattles whose sound would frustrate escape). And there is this: a seaman’s roughly made wooden trunk, perhaps four feet long, its exterior without significant decoration. But on the inside lid is a crudely drawn image, primitive enough to be a child’s rendering, that the seaman would have seen each time he opened the trunk: a near-naked enslaved African, his wrists chained, stands beside a respectably dressed man with a small whip in one hand and, in the other, a leash attached to a collar around the slave’s neck. The ghastly depiction serves as ornament.

"Captive Passage" is well suited to a museum, situated in the largely African-American community of Anacostia in southeast Washington, four miles from the National Mall. The museum’s educational and outreach programs have influenced the evolution of other African-American museums across the country, even as its collections have invited traditional scholarly-based exploration. As a follow-up to "Captive Passage," for example, the museum will develop an exhibition on slave adornment and textile traditions, celebrating the survival of creativity and personal expression in conditions so hostile to them.

In 1986, the museum, which first opened in 1967, moved to a building in Fort Stanton Park in Anacostia. It was refurbished last year, although "refurbished" does not do justice to the scale of the transformation. The museum will always be of the community. But the borders of its mission are not drawn there, nor can they be, when so many of the resources needed to tell the African-American story in nuanced detail are most likely hidden away in attics and trunks throughout America, their owners often unaware of the historical riches they possess. The museum is situated on a hillside in the park, and that’s only fitting, for from its elevation it looks out to the community and casts its gaze much farther still.

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