Here is an interesting segment from Hrag Vartanian’s column, Required Reading (Hyperallergic). This article could easily be entitled, Zadie Smith on the legacy of slavery.” Zadie Smith writes, “Even more extraordinary to me now is how many second-generation Caribbean kids in the UK grew up, in the 1970s and 1980s, with the bizarre notion that our families were somehow native to ‘the islands,’ had always been there, even as we pored over the history of ‘American slavery.’”
Public art claiming to represent our collective memory is just as often a work of historical erasure and political manipulation. It is just as often the violent inscription of myth over truth, a form of “over-writing”—one story overlaid and thus obscuring another—modeled in three dimensions. In the United States, we speak of this. Discussions of power and erasure as they relate to monuments are by now well under way.
The astonishing, ongoing absence of public markers of the slave trade, for example—of landing sites and auction blocks, of lynchings and massacres—is a matter of frequent public discussion, debate, and (partial) correction, albeit four hundred years after the first enslaved peoples landed on American shores.
In the UK, meanwhile, we have to speak not simply of erasure but of something closer to perfect oblivion. It is no exaggeration to say that the only thing I ever learned about slavery during my British education was that “we” ended it. Even more extraordinary to me now is how many second-generation Caribbean kids in the UK grew up, in the 1970s and 1980s, with the bizarre notion that our families were somehow native to “the islands,” had always been there, even as we pored over the history of “American slavery.”
[Photo above: “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” features blackamoors on the way to the main attraction of the exhibition. Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.]