Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Altars to Women of Color in Harvard’s History?

In a Skype conversation yesterday, artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeir had a fascinating proposal for students in my “Power and Aesthetics in Africa and the Diaspora" (AAAS 156) class at Harvard. The students have been trying to conceptualize an exhibition, performance piece and symposium honoring women of color associated with Harvard over the past three centuries, in slavery and freedom. Lynn suggested we center the project around three “personal altars” for the three 18th century women whom we are witnessing; all three women were, so far as we can tell, born in Africa, brought on slave ships to the Boston area, where they spent at least part of their lives in slavery. The six other women whom we are celebrating in the project (activists, artists, scholars) would be represented in some sort of dynamic relationship to these altars, situated in ‘conversation’ with their foremothers as it were. Our plan would be erect these altar like spaces at a performance/symposium event on Monday, April 19, described at:

We would read the words of these women and perhaps perform evocative music, oriented towards the altar-like spaces. We might include them in the exhibition we are planning at Pusey library, next to cases showcasing relevant documents from the Harvard University Archives.

Lynn’s exciting idea has gotten me thinking about what goes into an altar, at the intersection of art and exhibition. Historian Stephen Bann reminds us that in the early modern period, cabinets of curiosity, the forerunners of modern museum displays, emerged in a curious fashion out of altars; they were, he convincingly demonstrates, developed in the context of nostalgic longing by early Protestant intellectuals for the reliquaries destroyed by Protestant reformers. It is fascinating to think that at the heart of the modern exhibitionary complex, usually thought of as such as secular undertaking, the numinous “aura” of altar spaces might still endure, in complex and subtle ways.

We are trying to think through the politics and ethics of any evocation of altar spaces; we are of course wary of anything that seem kitschy or disrespectful of Afro-Atlantic spiritual traditions. Yet it does seem right and proper, as Lynn has emphasized, to foreground spiritual dimensions to the project along with an emphasis on educational achievement.

What precisely might such altars or altar like spaces look like? There is a vast proliferation of altar and shrine aesthetics in West/Central Africa and in the African Diaspora that might be drawn upon for inspiration. One of the woman, Belinda Royall, was captured by slave raiders from her home region, in what appears to have been an Ewe or Akan-speaking community in present day Eastern Ghana, along the River Volta. That might suggest an altar space incorporating rocks, branches, pans, ceramic bowls, white chalk, and cloth. Belinda in her 1782 petition makes a rather puzzling reference to the “Great Orisa who made all things”: was she in fact conversant with Yoruba religious elements or was her childhood faith more oriented towards Vodun we wonder?

We are still puzzled on the question of Phillis Wheatley’s origins. Most sources state she was born in the Gold Coast (present day Ghana) or the Senegambia, but the slave schooner on which she was transported in 1761 to Boston, The Phillis (for which she was named) according to slavevoyages.org embarked from the “Windward Coast” (present day Liberia, Sierra Leone and part of Guinea.) In his book on Wheatley, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. states that the vessel gathered “slaves in Senegal, Sierra Leone, and the Isles de Los, off the coast of Guinea,” and infers she was most likely a Wolof speaker. Whatever the spiritual traditions of her West African childhood, should the altar or sacred space also evoke the Christianity that she soon embraced in Boston?

The third enslaved woman, referred to only as a “Negro Wench” in Harvard President Benjamin Wadsworth’s 1726 diary. We know that she was purchased from Adino Bulfinch in Boston, and that Bulfinch was part owner of a vessel that brought slaves through Barbados, but we do not where in Africa she might have come from.

I am thinking perhaps that the most appropriate altar spaces might be centered on upright tree branches, with various offerings hanging from them. The tree has Christological as well as diverse African and Afro-Atlantic resonances, so might be an appropriately inclusive form. On Belinda's altar we would certainly include a copy of her famous 1782 petition, requesting financial support for the estate of her former owners, the Royall family of Medford. Phillis Wheatley's altar would certainly include her poem addressed to Harvard students, "The the University of Cambridge in New England." The altar for the unknown "negro wench" would include President Wadsworth's diary entry about purchasing her.

We’ll continue to talk this over in class, with Africanist scholars and community partners.