Saturday, December 6, 2008

The "Bench by the Side of the Road" Project

This past August, Ellen and I visited Charleston, SC, and went out to see the recently dedicated bench on Sullivan's Island, the first of many benches to be placed by the Toni Morrison Society. (See the official page on this at: )
The accompanying plaque declares that Sullivan's Islands was a major point of transhipment during the Atlantic Slave Trade; and the "nearly half" of all African-Americans are descended from enslaved persons who first were brought through the island.

The bench project is inspired by Toni Morrison's famous comment in an interview some years ago about the lack of monumental markings of the victims of slavery, the slave trade and Jim Crow in this country, reproduced in the plaque shown above" "There's no 300 foot tower. There's no small bench by the side of the road."

Any project marking these unacknowledged histories is of course laudable, yet in a couple of respects this intial instance does seem to be a bit flawed:

1. To begin with, the bench itself is banal. A simple black metal bench of the sort that might be found, as an artist friend sadly remarked, in any Home Depot. Why couldn't the bench be designed, or least painted, by a creative artist, celebrating in effect the brilliant artistic and cultural legacies that flourish in the Afro-Atlantic world amidst the enduring legacies of the slave trade? I appreciate that there are often virtues in simplicity and under-statement. Yet in this instance couldn't the Toni Morrison Society find a way to support the work of visual artists (especially artists of color). One is certainly struck by the irony of a "respectable" monument to the slave trade, that politely blends into its surroundings; no one passing by the bench would notice it, unless they were looking for it (Ellen and I spent about twenty minutes searching for it.) We had just seen the extraordinary urban slave quarters at the Aiken-Rhett mansion in Charleston and wondered at the vivid brilliant colors still visible on the internal walls, which so destablize the usual assumptions about the white-washed or monochrome interiors of slaves' domestic spaces; wouldn't it be something to have some defiant color animating the bench?

2. The plaque's assertion that "nearly half of all African Americans have ancestors who passed through Sullivan's Island" is an often-repeated one, but would be appear to be without historical foundation. My understanding is that there are only scattered references to a "pest house" in late 18th century Sullivan's Island, and that the vast majority by enslaved persons were brought directly in the Charleston port itself. As much as one appreciates the desire for an equivalent site to Ellis Island (a site itself deeply embedded in mythos), surely on matters as vitally important as the slave trade, there's an imperative to strive for as much fidelity as possible to unassailable historical documentation (granted, of course, that the historical record of slavery and the slave trade is often incomplete and corrupted by various interested parties!)

Having said all this, it is certainly a moving thing to see the bench, and we are all surely grateful to the National Park Service for in effect hosting this site. Sitting upon it and gazing out into the water, it a beautiful place to contemplate Morrison's magnificent ouevre as well as the many thousands gone. In the shadow of Jim Crow, in which benches were highly politicized spaces from which so many were excluded, there's an undeniable genius in dedicating benches upon which all are welcome.

Yet, I can't help but hope that the next benches dedicated by the TMS will be a little more provocative, a little more celebratory of the power of art (especially African-American art) and a little more careful with the (always contested and contestible) historical record.

1 comment:

Ellen Schattschneider said...

I take the point that more artistically-engaging benches would be a good thing, and that a more judicious reading of the historical record around the slave trade would have been preferable. Having said that, I do love the TMS idea of a series of ten benches across the nation, marking unmarked sites in African American history, from the starting point of the 5th Avenue Silent Parade to the home of Fannie Lou Hamer in Ruleville, Mississippi. Benches where one can quietly read Morrison's novels or perhaps have an unexpected conversation with a passerby about the history of the place. (That happened to us when we sat on the Sullivan's Island bench this past summer; and found ourselves talking to a lovely couple who lives nearby, who shared their memories of the dedication ceremony and their love of Morrison's work.)

If a founding narrative of this nation is Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, surely it is high time for an alternate pilgrimage route, traced by these benches on the side of the road.