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My New Book!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

July 4, 2012: Newton’s Histories, Part 3

[If you live in the Boston area, you could do a lot worse, this 4th of July week or for any summer daytrip, than visiting Newton’s Jackson Homestead and Museum. For this week’s blog series I’ll be highlighting some of the many interesting stories and exhibits included in that small but compelling space.]
On two distinct yet equally suggestive and compelling recreations in the Museum’s most successful exhibit.
I’ve written before about my favorite American speech (and one of my favorite texts period), Frederick Douglass’s sarcastic, angry, eloquent, irrefutable, and so powerful “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” What Douglass does with particular clarity in that oration is to bring slavery—its realities and effects, but also its broader meanings and significance—home to his audience, making them aware of this defining American system in a way few authors had done prior or have since. That complex, challenging, and crucial goal would also be at the heart of any museum of American slavery (such as this long-in-development but eventually unsuccessful Virginia project). And it is also the purpose of the Jackson Homestead and Museum’s newest and most compelling exhibition, the basement-housed “Confronting Our Legacy: Slavery and Antislavery in the North.”
Two specific elements within that exhibition do a particularly good job capturing key aspects of their respective subjects. To capture the feel (literally) of the Middle Passage, the exhibition features a vertical wooden box in which visitors are invited to stand; the box’s dimensions parallel exactly how much space each slave was given in the hold of a standard Middle Passage vessel. Stepping into the box, feeling its sides press against me (much as the slaves on either side would have), I was reminded of the justifiably famous passage in Alex Haley’s Roots when he descends into the hold of a recreated Middle Passage ship, clad only in his underwear, hoping to feel something of what his ancestor must have felt in that situation. Just as Haley’s experiment could not possibly capture the worst aspects of the Middle Passage—the diseases, the smells and sounds, the fears and uncertainties, the death and torture and worse—so too does the Museum’s space require us to imagine beyond our own moment and into all of those elements. But so would any such memorial, of course; and this one was at least, for me, a pretty evocative attempt.
Far different, yet in its own way equally evocative, is the exhibition’s recreation of the Underground Railroad. There’s no question that William Jackson and his family took part in that network of antebellum resistance, aiding fugitive slaves on their journeys north; but by its very nature the Railroad was secretive, and so most of the specifics of how the Jackson Homestead was utilized for that purpose remain unclear. And the Museum reflects that nature quite effectively, engaging with and yet also questioning the potentially accurate yet possibly mythic story that the Jacksons used their basement well as a hiding place for such fugitives. The well has been left uncovered, so visitors can look down into it and imagine hiding within it; but the wall panels surrounding it present both the reasons why it may have been used that way and the arguments against the story, and thus explicitly ask that visitor not only to imagine him or herself into the history but also to try to decide whether to believe this particular Underground Railroad story. Such questions seem quite parallel to, and so to capture very effectively, the perspectives of potential fugitives, of other Underground Railroad operatives, of slavecatchers and officers of the law, of anyone for whom the status of the Jackson’s Railroad station would be of importance.
Next Museum story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
7/4 Memory Day nominee: Nathaniel Hawthorne!

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