Giving a Voice to the Choiceless

By: Caitlin Dashiell

Hidden in plain view, captured prisoners and soldiers of the Nazi army comprised the inhabitants of three internment camps known as Auschwitz in Germany during the Holocaust. Siphoned back and forth between death, prison, and forced labor, Auschwitz’s imprisoned individuals were made to identify as Jewish, or with ethnicities or social classes determined by German Nazi standards to be equally inferior. Marked as inadequate for the human race, these individuals were brought into the triad of camps to be traumatized, enslaved, and often fatally poisoned within gas chambers. This narrative of the Holocaust is known by individuals around the world, whether they lived during the time of the Second World War or not, because of how it embeds itself into the cultural narrative of many countries globally. As these horrors border on the surreal, passed down because of trauma often impossible to comprehend, it takes the accurate communication of memory to keep the events of the past living. Opening on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the “Unlocking the Gates of Auschwitz” exhibit at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, OH takes on this challenge of memory transmission, offering representational personal belongings from once-captive prisoners in Auschwitz, in tandem with the personal testimonies of Holocaust survivors, and now Cincinnati residents, Werner Coppel and Bella Ouziel. Through this strategy, the Freedom Center not only represents an event of trauma, but transmits the story of the Holocaust to those who can only understand through the absorption of these communicated memories.

Told chronologically, “Unlocking the Gates” conveys the story of a man and woman living through the trauma of the Holocaust, from their initiation into the camps to their escape. Visitors walk past what architect Peter Zumthor would call “surrounding objects,” which make the otherwise blank walls and floors echo with the narrative being communicated (54), and come to screens displaying videos of Werner and Bella telling their stories. The physical artifacts and candid verbal narratives come together to express and transmit how a person can be stripped of his or her identity and reduced to what Werner calls “consumable raw materials.” Werner and Bella tell their stories, acting simultaneously as a voice for themselves, and for those that have been silenced.

Broken into stages, and communicated through groupings of objects and their location in the exhibit, artifacts and screens are split into structured rooms connected by corridors, and are paired together in correspondence to each phase of life in Auschwitz, as noted by the exhibit’s narrators. The initial set of items speaks to the fears of those targeted individuals who were unable to escape who they were. Books, paper ephemera, and embroidered tokens of being marked a Jew sit in glass cases, serving as objects that attest to the Nazi’s destruction of people’s lives and identities. The Jewish people were identified through markers on their homes, their clothing, their passports, and often on their businesses, objectified through physical signs of banishment. These indicators became the first level of identity erasure for the Jewish people.

Moving into the second spatial construct of the exhibition, visitors start in a corridor which details the process of capture for the Jewish people. As Werner explains in the video at the end of the corridor, “When I got off the train, I heard ‘women and children to the left: men to the right,’” which would become the last words many heard before the Nazi’s silenced the voices of those who entered Auschwitz. Visitors are transported back to the moments preceding Werner’s capture through the use of present-day spatial constriction within the exhibit, as well as visuals that signal entrapment. Here, visitors to “Unlocking the Gates” see the birth of identity erasure, as images and ephemera of individuals boarding train cars coat the walls of the exhibit. This progression through the tight corridor and into the exhibit signals how the exhibit shifts the visitors’ focus from the process of initial emotional destruction and mental degradation in the camps to that of physical erasure and trauma. Not only are the Jewish people, in addition to others identified as inferior to the German race, stripped down to a single term defining their worth, but their understood environment is erased from their lives.

Because the exhibition forces visitors to continue to progress claustrophobically through tight spaces and corridors, visitors gain a greater level of clarity about the approach taken by the Nazi army to control the intake and distribution of bodies into Auschwitz. Taking this even further, visitors to “Unlocking the Gates” are drawn to wall displays that convey and transmit some of the dialog of the Nazi enforcers within the camps, with one army general commenting that “shooting became a strain,” indicating how, as time went on, the Nazi mentality went from using brute force to an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality with the transition to the gas chambers. The Nazis made use of deceptive language and actions to sanitize themselves, and the greatest abuse of power became the manipulation of once harmless constructs for the benefit of the “master race.” Even through infrastructure as harmless as the railway system within Germany, the Nazi’s utilized these lines for transport to Auschwitz, taking advantage of an existing infrastructure for the supposed betterment of the race, shuttling “inferior” individuals (often) to their eventual death in Auschwitz. Through the language and conveyed memories of this exhibit, representation becomes transmission, with visitors interacting with memories through the startling dialogue that catches individuals within the physical architectural boundaries of the exhibition. Visitors to “Unlocking the Gates” now possess a richer internal understanding of the past, as communicated memories impose themselves on visitors through language and visual indicators of trauma.

The final portions of this exhibit not only touch on, but uncover in-depth, the process of forced labor and escape within Auschwitz for Werner and Bella, as the exhibit also presents the personal objects and struggles of this man and woman specifically. Werner and Bella look directly into the camera to speak, giving life to their personal belongings, as only the potency of words and language can. The Nazis took things that were necessary, though maybe not beautiful, and bent them to their will, infecting the social structure, the infrastructure, and the consumable goods with the blood of those not included in the “master race.” However, what Werner and Bella tell us through their accounts of labor, as they approached their opportunities for freedom, is that their work and daily activities were never done without losing sight of how to make it out alive. As read in a letter written by a mother on one of the trains into Auschwitz: “remain free people, and observe everything with open eyes.” Perhaps this heightened perception and observation was what assisted Bella and Werner in surviving. Though this woman may not have survived to return to her children, her words live on through this exhibit as a testament to how language and written memories offer a unique perspective on historical events. Emotionally charged, this exhibit merits praise for how it transports visitors back to a time of captivity and constriction, while still keeping them with one foot firmly in the present.

“Unlocking the Gates of Auschwitz 70 Years Later” is one city’s way of remembering a time of incommunicable strife and trauma. Drawing parallels to American slavery, and what are commonly considered acts of enslavement, “Unlocking the Gates” demonstrates the systematic oppression and inhumanity evident in the structuring of Auschwitz. The decision to incorporate this exhibition into The Freedom Center was grounded in learning about and reflecting on historical events that challenged the strength of the human spirit amidst extreme oppression, as explained by executive director Sarah L. Weiss. The victims of the Holocaust and the concentration camps of Auschwitz were defined by their ability to act as a piece of a machine, stripped of freedom, and devoid of the ability to make choices. In an attempt to educate visitors and offer reflection on the events of the past, the chief desire of The Freedom Center in the display of “Unlocking the Gates” is to communicate the security of freedom “in all its forms,” whether this be through testimony, representational physical objects, or the power of the written word (“Powerful Exhibit”). Communicating memory through personal testimony and tangible objects is how this exhibit makes its mark on modern day discourse regarding slavery and institutional oppression.

Though the American public cannot directly or accurately understand what going through this process of erasure and rebirth entailed, what can be communicated is how these events can be included in our national narrative, in order for us to understand trauma and slavery outside of traditional definitions. These transmissions of memory can be used to develop how we better understand and react to our own trauma, in addition that of other countries, to strengthen how the memory of events of global impact are incorporated in our society. Here, transmission of memory and language through spoken and written form, as it relates to personal objects, serves as an aid for our collective memory; giving way to how we interpret the experiences we have not lived through. The exhibit ends with both Werner and Bella offering their thoughts 70 years after the end of the Holocaust, and as each of them speaks, voices tense, they talk about looking back after 70 years. Now with scars, tattoos, and, most importantly, families, Werner and Bella are reminded of where they have been, what they have achieved, and how survival is rooted most deeply in the retained memories of what is good.


Works Cited

“Unlocking the Gates of Auschwitz 70 Years Later.” The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. 50 East Freedom Way, Cincinatti, OH 45202. 7 February 2015.

Zumthor, Peter. Atmospheres: Cultural Environments, Surrounding Objects. Reinach: Birkhauser, 1998. Print

“Powerful Exhibit Shares Local Stories of Despair, Hope and Loss During the Holocaust.” National Underground Railroad Freedom Center . N.p., 14 Dec. 2014 Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Western Europe: Key Recommendations

By: Lucy Mahaffey

In the following post, undergraduate student Lucy Mahaffey from University of Oklahoma examines comparative data about the anti-trafficking practices of both Greece and Norway and offers recommendations for other countries looking to improve their anti-slavery policies.

Western Europe is often looked to for ideal infrastructure and government. In instances of human trafficking, it has led the abolitionist movement with the United States. However, there is a gap between what has been theorized and what is being practiced. According to its membership in the United Nations and the European Union, as well as its income level, Norway could be more effective, but it is by far one of the all-around best European counties when it comes to anti-trafficking practices. Greece is sluggish and still appears to be in new territory by comparison. The challenge facing Greece today is to bring its prevention, intervention, and prosecution forward to compare more favorably with its EU neighbors. This could be done by strengthening local and national education programs, seeking swifter ways to intervene when cases occur, and following through with stronger and more effective prosecution and reformative incarceration of traffickers. In short, funding is needed for law enforcement and lawyer training as well as emphasizing incarceration as “an arena of developing responsibility” (James) instead of solely for punishment. Through these actions, with emphasis on mitigating corruption and discrimination, true and unbiased justice in Greece would prevail.


Prosecutions and Convictions – Norway and Greece

Overall, in Greece there was a general lack of prosecution in human trafficking cases and a “new territory” feel to procedure. Although they are making progress, there is a large gap between Greek actions and those of countries from the rest of Western Europe. According to the 2014 Trafficking in Persons (TIP Report), Greek police investigated 37 human trafficking cases in 2013 (46 cases in 2012; 11 investigations were for forced begging or labor.) NGOs reported in four cases, with sentences ranging from 15 to 22 years’ imprisonment and fines the equivalent of approximately $14,000 to $70,000. Concerning Greek actions in 2013, the TIP Report also states that “the government prosecuted 142 defendants on suspicion of committing trafficking-related crimes” (“Greece” TIP Report), but this was less than the 177 from 2012 (as well as the 220 in 2011.) Out of 177 defendants, there were 26 who fell into the labor trafficking category whereas 23 were categorized for labor and sexual exploitation. There was not full data available for the TIP Report from “approximately half of the courts in Greece” (“Greece” TIP Report).

Year 2012 2013
Greek Trafficking CASES/CONVICTIONS 27/177 46/142
Greek Conviction Rate 15% 32%

One aspect that the TIP fails to look at is the conviction rate. It is not difficult to discern from the data and is important to consider for progress of efforts over time. In 2013, for instance, the government convicted 46 traffickers and acquitted 16 (32% conviction rate with 46 of 142 defendants), compared with 27 convictions and 16 acquittals (or a 15% conviction rate) in 2012 (“Greece” TIP Report). This shows a good improvement; however, each judge has a varying degree of knowledge of trafficking and, thus, largely lacked consideration of victims. It also seems that prosecution was not consistent. Also, lawyers for traffickers (or suspects) often portrayed their clients as pimps, rather than traffickers, with the hopes of a less harsh punishment of five years’ imprisonment or to avoid prison by paying fines. For Greece, there was no data available to breakdown defendants into either sex or labor trafficking.

Norway, on the other hand, has a great infrastructure for combating trafficking, but their conviction rate over the last few years shows that there has not been enough allocated to effectively combat trafficking (“Norway” TIP Report).

Norwegian authorities initiated 69 investigations in 2013. Thirty of these were for sex trafficking and thirty-nine were for labor trafficking. The government prosecuted six sex trafficking suspects (20% cr) and three labor trafficking suspects (13% cr) in 2013 (compared with two suspects (8% cr) and six suspects (28%) in 2012.) Authorities convicted three sex trafficking offenders and two labor trafficking offenders in 2013, compared with three sex trafficking offenders and four labor trafficking offenders convicted in 2012. These are interesting findings, indicating that perhaps there is a finite amount of resources, which are simply reallocated to whichever type of cases (sex or labor) that were lacking the previous year. The Norwegian government needs to allocate more time and energy into trafficking cases.

Year 2012 2013
Sex Trafficking CASES/CONVICTIONS 6/30 2/26
Norway ST Conviction Rate 20% 8%
Labor Trafficking CASES/CONVICTIONS 3/39 6/22
Norway LT Conviction Rate 8% 28%

A Final Word

Norway is by no means perfect in its efforts to combat trafficking, and Greece should not be vilified. Europe and global stakeholders may use the lessons these two countries provide to improve standards, enhance understanding, and encourage collective effort in combating trafficking. The topics touched upon, such as funding, education, and swifter intervention, are much needed. They are, however, only a starting point. Slavery today has widely been acknowledged as a global atrocity by governments, religious leaders, and businesses alike. It is crucial, however, to delve deeper into the subject matter to carry the global perspective beyond mere acknowledgement and to truly question the norms of today. Why is there any trafficking in Norway, a country with a GDP exceeding three-fourths of the world’s countries? Is Greece to blame for its sluggish anti-trafficking actions, or is this a result of external pressure from economic policy and internal government turmoil? The world must ask these far-reaching questions, refusing to simply accept a prosecution as the final answer to trafficking and remembering to examine the “best practice” countries and regions without idolizing them. Through this perspective, future studies on trafficking today may build a more thorough picture of serviceable policy and create the lasting change we all desire.


Works Cited

“Greece.” Trafficking in Persons Report 2014. US Department of State, 2014. 188-9. Web.

James, Erwin. “Norwegian Prison Inmates Treated Like People.The Guardian 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.

“Norway.” Trafficking in Persons Report 2014. US Department of State, 2014. 299-300. Web.

On Barbados and “English Trader, Indian Maid”: An Interview With Dr. Frank Felsenstein

By: Isabel Vazquez

Recently, I had the privilege to interview Dr. Felsenstein, author of the Inkle and Yarico reader titled English Trader, Indian Maid (1999). In his anthology, he provides numerous translations and variations of the story of Inkle and Yarico as it developed throughout the late-seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries. Because of his work on this story, Dr. Felsenstein and his wife were invited to take a trip to Barbados in January, where he viewed the dedication of a monument to Yarico on Kendal Plantation (where the flesh-and-blood Yarico supposedly lived). He also traveled to London from March 4 to March 8 to lecture on the history of Inkle and Yarico at a pre-performance event for the opening of the musical Yarico by Yarico Productions.

downloadFor those of you not familiar with the story, it tells the tale of Inkle, an English merchant shipwrecked in the Americas, and Yarico, the beautiful Indian maiden who rescues him. Yarico and Inkle begin a romantic relationship, and when Inkle returns to the European world with Yarico (promising to take her as his wife if they were to return safely), he immediately sells her into slavery, despite the fact that she is bearing his child.

The fictive story is based on the factual account of Richard Ligon’s expedition to the English colony in Barbados. In his memoir of A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657), he tells of his encounter with a freeborn Indian slave by the name of Yarico who is pregnant with a white servant’s child. It is from this historical recollection that Richard Steele drew inspiration for the tale of Inkle and Yarico in the Spectator #11 (1711).

To open the interview, I asked Dr. Felsenstein to speak generally about English Trader, Indian Maid and the Inkle and Yarico story:

The story became popular during a time when people in the eighteenth century started to be concerned about the treatment of African slaves and started to ask the question: how do you demonstrate the wrongness of slavery? One way in which you can is to appeal not to the head, not to the economic considerations, but to the heart. And I think that one should recognize that sentiment was something that was extremely powerful, it was going to appeal to the heart. Many of the “Inkle and Yarico” stories did appeal to the heart and to the idea that the selling of Yarico was so wrong—and the dramatic versions of the play from the late 18th century really emphasized this strategy. So these versions of the story were an important factor in helping to sway opinion in favor of the abolition of the slave trade from the British Isles, which took place in the early 19th century and then the abolition from the British colonies in the 1830’s, which let’s remember, is about thirty years before the United States fought a terrible war over the question of slavery.

Would you mind beginning by telling me a little bit about the trip to Barbados in itself, an overview of sorts?

The invitation to do this arrived relatively late on. I had actually already committed to going to a conference in La Jolla, California the weekend before, and I was asked to talk in Barbados the following Tuesday. The talk was sponsored partly by the people involved with the Inkle and Yarico play (Yarico Productions) and partly by the Barbados Museum, which is very interested in trying to restore and make sense of Bajan history. So when I got there the day following the La Jolla conference, I was asked to go straight to the museum. I met the curator there and our meeting was televised. The following day I went in the morning to where the monument was being mounted.

Can you tell me about your experience on Kendal Plantation?

Kendal Plantation is the plantation where the historical Yarico actually existed. There is a pond there, known as Yarico’s Pond. There are a number of ponds there, and one doesn’t know for sure whether this was the pond, though we do know that she gave birth to her child, “a lusty boy, frolick and lively,” by a pond on the estate, and that she was enslaved in that plantation.

When my travel was arranged, the plan had been that the unveiling of the monument to Yarico by Freundel Stuart, the Prime Minister of Barbados and my talk would be on the same day (Tuesday). What the planners did not take into account was that the Barbadian Parliament was due to have its ceremonial opening session on that Tuesday, so that the P.M. could not unveil the statue that day, and the formal dedication was postponed to Wednesday morning, when my wife and I were already committed to flying back to the U.S. So, on the Tuesday morning, we traveled to the Kendal Plantation, and were present when the plaque to the monument was mounted/installed. As I saw the monument being installed, there was a house just next to us, and an elderly man and his sister-in-law beckoned to us and said, “I recognize you. Yeah, I saw you on television earlier this morning!”

Yarico Monument

Yarico Monument

We actually stayed at Holder House, a traditional Barbados Plantation house owned by Wendy Kidd. Her son, Jack Kidd, hosted us and we had a terrific time. He was very generous as a host and in showing us parts of the island and taking us to see the Kendal Plantation. I think if they had sufficient money from private sponsors and from the United Nations they could make the Kendal Plantation into a world heritage site. You could renovate the still intact factory to show how this was a main source of sugar to feed the lucrative Caribbean trade with Europe, and how people were cruelly enslaved to enhance the production of this much in demand commodity. And you’d have that wonderful story of Yarico which belongs specifically to that plantation. So I don’t know whether that will ever happen but it would be quite brilliant if it did!

How was your talk received by the audience?

I thought it was so interesting. It was very much a mixed race audience, and there was a great question and answer session. I had several people who objected to my saying that the African people who were brought over were sent as slaves because they believe—and they call themselves Pan-Africans—that they came to Barbados as free people and that they were only enslaved after their arrival. And the historical evidence goes entirely against that, but apparently there are a number of people who believe this. I had to be sort of diplomatic and say, well, there must be more than one point of view. But apparently this is quite deeply entrenched in Black Caribbean and Barbadian culture, this idea that African people came over freely, of their own volition, and then were cruelly enslaved. I thought that was very fascinating, and I did not know about it before hand.

I think it is interesting how a story that is historical can then transform to something almost kind of mythological over the course of the eighteenth century. It is just fascinating how it works. What do you make of this process?

Well, I think the term I use to describe this process is not my own originally, but it is called “factual fiction.” It’s one of the most interesting things about literature, the relation between fact and fiction. Another adjective which I use to describe the Inkle and Yarico story is “ductile,” the fact that it can transform into so many different media if you like. That to me is enormously fascinating. And that transformative aspect accounts for the fact that it’s still very much a story that appeals to the present generation.

Would you say the story is past its glory days or will it become popular again?

Well, I don’t agree that it’s past its glory days. I think that, as with any good story, it needs to be retold in a present-day context, and I think that is essentially what’s happening. When we compare the parallel American story of Pocahontas that has become mythologized in all sorts of ways through to the Disney cartoon version of it, we see that these fictional accounts are a very long way away from what actually happened at that time. And, the story of Yarico has a twist to it in a way that the Pocahontas story does not.

In your opinion, what is the biggest difference between audiences today seeing the play vs. George Colman’s late eighteenth-century version of the play? What does the modern version represent to modern viewers?

Colman was a relatively young dramatist at that time; this was his first big hit. He’d had other plays before, but this was the first one which really had an impact. I’m not sure that he was fully aware of the impact that it would have. But the evidence is that it was performed everywhere in Great Britain and in North America, and also in the Caribbean. People responded to it as a play that was topical. Some scholars have contended that maybe we could see Colman’s Inkle and Yarico (1787) as the first social problem play because it deals with the question of slavery, albeit in a fairly light-hearted manner. You might feel that, in some ways, Colman ducked the issue by bringing Inkle and Yarico together again at the end of the play. But again, it was something which was tangible and emotive, it appealed to the heart, so I think that worked for the audience at that time. But for a present day audience, Yarico The Musical may allow them to become aware of the fact that slavery has not disappeared and that it is something that exists now.


Playbill Cover

I was privileged that when I went to London I was one of the speakers at the pre-performance panel of Yarico. Another speaker was James McConnell, who was the composer of the music. It was very interesting to hear his thinking about how he created the music. The other person was Aidan McQuade, executive director of Anti-Slavery International. The point that he was putting out was that slavery remains endemic across the world, and that here is a powerful play which makes us aware of that fact, even though it’s historical in its setting.

When you began researching and compiling together this obscure but fascinating tale of Inkle & Yarico, did you ever think it would lead to this event in London, in that the story would be revived in such a way?

Well I didn’t necessarily think it would do that, but I had to pursue the story. One of the things that I found totally fascinating, and you probably read that in English Trader, Indian Maid, was how the historical Yarico was an Amerindian and, as one sees the story develop, she becomes Africanized in later accounts. I think that is very important because it ties in with the transatlantic slave trade. There are various explanations that denote people’s indifference to this transformation or suggest their inability to discriminate between groups. Many eighteenth-century Europeans must have felt that native peoples, irrespective of their origin, were all “others,” that they’re all “inferior.” You could relate that to politics today: do people really know what’s truly happening? Are we sufficiently aware of racial and ethnic differences?

First Impressions: A Visual Analysis of the Introductory Portion of The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s “From Slavery to Freedom” Exhibit

By: Isabel Vazquez

Impressions are meant to do precisely what the word implies, that is, to impress, to fascinate, and excite in a manner that would be entirely unforgettable. From the moment I approached the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, OH, it certainly was impressive. The trip took place on February 7 and was arranged through my immersive Digital Literature Review class at Ball State University by Dr. Adam Beach, in order for the students to better understand the implications of slavery throughout history. At the entrance of the museum there was a piece of the Berlin Wall right before I entered, with a sign declaring its historical importance. The piece of the wall was covered with graffiti in brilliant colors placed there by many who were eager to express their opinions on the west side of the wall, no doubt. The fact that the piece stood there, right before entering the museum, was, to my mind, indicative of the historical implications that the rest of the museum would ask me to consider.


Sorrowful Expressions (photo taken by author)

I began on the third floor, as recommended by guest services. The moment I entered the From Slavery to Freedom exhibit, there was a definite change in the mood. On my immediate right, there was a prominent collection of statues in the corner, which consisted of slave men with sorrowful expressions on their visages (see image to the right). They were all sitting, chained, and each displayed a different emotion that, truthfully, was quite shocking and heart-wrenching to gaze at. The detail on them was amazing, so much so that you felt you were intruding into something personal. Some of these figures depicted in the statues were in the midst of crying, some staring quietly in the direction that you entered, and some gazing at the ground in utter defeat. The background surrounding them was of a simple house with a dirt floor, as if they had just been forced off the boat and locked in to prevent escape. There was even hardened sand with detailed shells embedded in it, and quiet sounds from the beach softly playing from hidden speakers and depicting the arrival of newly-brought slaves. The entire beginning of this particular exhibit was created with an immersive experience in mind. There was a prominence, a sort of hushed feeling that surrounded anyone who began the exhibit.

Without a doubt, this entry into the exhibit was meant to forcibly shock you into the history of slavery. From the moment I entered, I felt very much the intruder, and even uncomfortable. Though some people may argue that such an imposing entry is uncalled for, this is exactly what the exhibit was aiming to do. The history of slavery and its implications are not exactly a topic that can be sugarcoated to future generations. The raw introduction to this exhibit was done perfectly and appropriately in that it embodied the beginnings of slavery.

unnamed (1)

Facts and Figures (photo taken by author)

Past the statues there was an immediate onslaught of information covering the exhibit walls. There were fine facts and information about the transatlantic slave trade as well as recreations of newspaper articles on slavery issues. A multitude of other modes that conveyed information completely covered the path of the exhibit: posters,

drawings, objects, headlines, artwork, etc. A lot of interactive and computerized stations were placed throughout the exhibit, intended for use by both children and adults. There was also a notable area dedicated to showcasing the reasons behind slavery in connection to sugar and coffee production. As you moved throughout the exhibit, there was this unspoken idea that you were moving throughout time as well. Objects used by slave-owners were on display, such as shackles, whips and chains.

It is truly a powerful thing to see such objects in the context of the museum, in the heat of the moment. Often, you read about these experiences and events in history books, but never do you truly engage personally with any of it. The museum wonderfully displayed this dark theme to its visitors, in showing the power behind this tainted history in a way that made me self-aware of its implications today with an overload of information. The incredible amount of information was intended, in a sense, to overwhelm the guest in order to hopefully make a connection, an impression. And the layout of the exhibit was easy to follow, the fluidity of it modern. Yet, the lighting for the entire exhibit of From Slavery to Freedom was almost antiquated at times, throwing shadows and different connotations, depending on which part of the exhibit you were in. The entrance was noticeably brighter, for example, while, as I delved further into the exhibit, the light changed depending on the particular part of history that was being represented.

The reason for the drastic change in lighting was a means for presenting the history through vision. The brightness of a room can deeply affect the emotions associated with the lighting, and this subtle change from start to finish in the exhibit allows for the mind to unconsciously view certain parts of it in a particular way. For example, the statues at the beginning were not brightly lit; rather, they had shadows and multiple lights illuminating them to create a dreamlike state. The informative portion of the exhibit directly after the statues was even darker in terms of light, creating a personal, sort of heavy-lidded smaller space that seemed to entrap me with its implications of slavery. This form of presenting the material is important in order to gently guide visitors through the rather naturally morbid topic.

Colors of the Sea

Colors of the Sea (photo taken by author)

Specifically, there was this one curious room that was noticeably dark, with enough light to just barely see. The room was surrounded by stone-material inscribed with the names of past slave forts. In the mist of this ebony room was a stunning pillar that emitted light from it. The surface of the pillar, however, was covered in brilliant, tiny rocks of sea colors (see image to right). Shades of blue, green and yellow were wonderfully fixated on its glass surface, making for a stunning monument to the essence of slavery while “Amazing Grace” was playing in the background. However, some guests might disagree with my perception of it. Some of my fellow classmates, upon discussing the museum later on, mentioned how they viewed the room as personally offensive and rather eerie. This same pillar that moved me to recognize the horrid history of slavery disturbed others because of its presence.

This reaction shows precisely the power behind the visual design in general, especially within the framework of slavery. The lighting, different modes of presenting slavery, and the fluidity of the From Slavery to Freedom exhibit ultimately contributed to the essential importance of the history of slavery and to the visitors’ recognition of its modern existence. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center did an incredible visual job in presenting slavery; not only do I applaud this museum, but I look forward to returning.

Proper Punishment?: “Sankofa” and the Politics of Punishment

By: Morgan Aprill

Sankofa (1993) is an independent film that, as director Haile Gerima explained, sought to reconnect African Americans with their forgotten pasts. Gerima’s film follows an African-American model named Mona as she is transported back in time to a slave plantation in the Western Hemisphere. The exact location is unclear, but the film works to encourage African Americans to connect to their ancestral past as the main character Mona is forced to literally relive life as a slave. The film also centers on the African slaves on the plantation who plan a rebellion against their captors, something quite unique among many other films about American slavery (recent films Django Unchained and 12 Years A Slave both include a white savior).  Gerima used his film to call African Americans to action and to reclaim their past to strengthen their present existence via an emphasis on their African heritage, and he was unafraid to address issues that Hollywood would not. However, the director’s motivations are questionable when we look at his execution, especially when it comes to Mona and the initiation of the storyline.

Haile Gerima has repeatedly stated that his vision was to create a film that brought back to life the struggles of African-Americans’ past.  For example, in an interview with Diane Turner and Muata Kamdibe, Gerima said that “[he] needed to do a film on the silent violence against the children of Africa because they were created in Africa” (974). In other words, he saw many African Americans who were not talking about the violence in their ancestral past and believed this needed to be changed—even enforced. An African man himself, he seemed particularly concerned with what he saw as African Americans distancing themselves from the violence of their collective past. Gerima particularly wanted African Americans to realize their need to accept their African heritage, as he portrays through Mona’s transformation. Gerima believes reliving the past is essential.

I think it is important to criticize Gerima’s shaming of African Americans. His belief that many are in denial and not African enough gives off an aura of superiority. He resembles his own guardian character who forces Mona to relive a traumatic history whether she likes it or not. Mona loses her own agency and is punished for acting in accordance with the society she saw around her—one that values physical appearance and immediacy. Is her punishment based on her irreverence for the slave castle where she is doing a photo shoot? Or is it perhaps heightened due to the sexual nature of the shoot on the beach as the photographer commands her: “Let the camera do it to you, Mona”? How would this film be different if it was a male model who was at the castle? Would a male model be punished so severely for posing in a provocative way on the beach near the slave castle? It seems like something is going on here relating to the policing of black women’s bodies and their sexualities. Mona seems to be punished for her assimilation into American culture as a model for the fashion industry and one who shouts to her captors, when transported in time, that she is “not an African!”

Mona also seems to be punished for allowing her sexuality to be exploited for profit through the sexy photo shoot. Yet there are many images of her naked body and her rape within the film itself. The line between exploitation/voyeurism and a justifiable forced remembrance of sexual violence is pretty hazy in Sankofa. While Mona is showing control of her sexuality as she models on the beach, once she is transported back to the slave plantation, we see her bare breasts as she is stripped naked and branded; we see her fully naked at the end of the film; and we see sex being used as a punishment as she is raped repeatedly throughout the film by her master. It’s almost as if Gerima is suggesting that asserting your sexuality as a black female should be shameful because of how many were raped and abused sexually during American slavery. There is a sexual shaming evident in Mona’s sentencing to relive slavery. How is that reclaiming anything for women who were tortured sexually and made objects during the history of American slavery?

The fact that Mona is sent back to experience the trials of slavery without a choice seems hasty and sexually charged. Is it her fault that she just did what helped her succeed as an African American woman in her career path? Gerima seems to think societal pressures and stereotypes are not an excuse, and that it’s more important for blacks to emphasize an Afro-centric identity. Using an old castle for a photo shoot that once held slaves who were deported to the Americas does have a blatant feeling of disrespect. If Mona had been posing in homage to those who were shackled and sent to the Americas from that location, perhaps the guardian would have looked on Mona with more respect. It seems the issue comes with the cameraman’s appeal to Mona to be sexy in her photos. There is a time and place to be sexy, the guardian and Gerima seem to say, and the castle of your ancestors is not one of them. However, the offense that Mona seems to be committing is hardly worth such harsh punishment as branding, whipping, rape, and torture. Could not the guardian have given her a stern lecture instead? Ultimately, Sankofa was an important and groundbreaking film, but it still carries questionable ethics and politics when it comes to its overall plot and execution. In this way it is hardly successful and actually fairly problematic when we consider these issues of gender and sexual violence in slavery.


Work Cited

Turner, Diane D. and Muata Kamdibe. “Haile Gerima: In Search of an African Cinema.” Journal of Black Studies 38.6 (2008): 968-991. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

“Sankofa” and Us: How Looking Back Moves Us Forward

By: Niki Wilkes

The critical reception of the 1993 film Sankofa, especially from those with an academic interest in the field of slave narrative studies, has made it a significant member of slavery film canon. To teach a film study class on slavery without including Sankofa would be like teaching a nineteenth-century British Literature class without mentioning Jane Austen. Over its twenty years of existence, the film has sparked both conversation and controversy, most of which surround the concept of “sankofa” and whether Gerima’s exploration of the topic can transcend his intended audience to give a commentary on contemporary global issues related to slavery.

Sankofa is the story of an African-American supermodel named Mona doing a photo shoot in Ghana who is sent back in time by an angered African holy man to experience slavery so that she can better understand her forgotten roots. The film’s director, Haile Gerima, explores through her journey an ideology called sankofa, which means, “to retrieve the past to move forward” (Dorsey par 1). This film has a particular interest in exploring how the characters actively pursued the ideals of sankofa. Through Mona’s character, the audience sees the benefits of this idea by experiencing her fear-turned-admiration for the African holy man, which was Gerima’s way of portraying the change he wanted African Americans to make in regards to appreciating their heritage and understanding their roots.

Sankofa Bird (Image Source)

Sankofa Bird (Image Source)

Critics such as Noah Berlatsky and Caryn James found this transformation to be a powerful one, well-represented in the film. Mona starts out, as James explains in his article, “dressed in a pseudo-Tina Turner getup complete with blond wig,” evidently showing the audience that she has lost all ties to her past, despite being in her home country (par. 3). Berlatsky goes on to point out in his article, “What Movies About Slavery Teach Us About Race Relations Today,” that Mona’s fear of her past is made more evident when they go to the castle and Mona encounters the holy man for the first time. This occurred just after the beach photo shoot scene where a white photographer is making explicit commands to “let the camera do it to you.” Despite the evident sexual objectification, Mona runs to hide behind the photographer when the holy man frightens her with the message of sankofa in a language she does not understand. Berlatsky also points out that when she enters the past, she denies her heritage by shouting “I’m not African. I’m American” (1). This is a stark contrast to the end of the movie, where Mona symbolically shows the level of her transformation by listening and approaching the drumming of the holy man and ignoring the voice of the white cameraman (Berlatsky 2). This is a powerful expression of sankofa’s transformative property, which was intended to shock African-American audience members so that they would begin to strive to understand their roots.  For other viewers, who may not have that direct heritage, Mona’s journey still shows how truly diving into the pain and suffering of past slave victims makes returning to the life of blissful ignorance impossible.

Nijla Mumin also praises the film for the work it is doing to give the audience a new type of narrative. She explains that, unlike most films about slavery, Sankofa has no “white savior.” The concept is common in slave stories where the slave must be saved from captivity by a benevolent member of the non-slave class. According to Mumin, Gerima removes slaves from “out of the one-dimensional, passive, ‘victim’ role, and embodies them with complications that manifest in active resistance, personal conflict, and compelling stories” (par. 3). This idea is supremely important to the concept of sankofa because it requires the person to take an active role in reclaiming themselves.

Sankofa gives audience members the other side of a slavery narrative, which shows how a slave can regain his or her agency. Deeper than that, however, is that the film shows that we are all connected to the roots of slavery. Gerima focuses on African slavery in the Americas, but Mona’s journey can figuratively be our journey as well. Slavery has touched every corner of history and the globe, meaning that we are connected to the institution in one way or the other. We can be both ancestors of slaves and slaveholders. We can also be possible victims or current perpetrators of modern slavery. Films like Sankofa show us that being directly and powerfully exposed to the harsh realities of slavery is sometimes the only way to wake us up. While we will never be forced into the extreme circumstance of Mona, many of us are personally shocked into advocacy by past narratives of slavery. We must look back to move forward.


Works Cited

Berlatsky, Noah. “What Movies About Slavery Teach Us About Race Relations Today.” The Atlantic. 2 Jan. 2014. Web. 12 Sep. 2014.

Dorsey, John. “Sankofa: Past Is Prologue.” The Baltimore Sun. n.p., 28 Sept. 1995. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.

James, Caryn. “Sankofa (1993) Review/Film; Reliving a Past of Slavery.” New York Times. 8 April 1994. Web. 14 Sep. 2014.

Mumin, Nijla. “Sankofa Revisited (L.A. Rebellion Film Series)” Indiewire. n.p. 14 Jan. 2013. Web. 13 Sept. 2014.

Capturing Color on Film: Photography’s Identity Crisis and the Legacy of Slavery

By Ramona Simmons

A woman walks reminiscing through the halls of her home, stopping at a particular picture that the sun seemed to focus on. Beneath the touch of the sun’s rays glows a pale white face, artfully applied with the paints of womanhood: mascara, eyeshadow, gloss, and the list goes on. In stark contrast, a darker warm mixture of mochas swirl to create the face beside hers. Family members doubling as amateur photographers have no idea the discovery they will make days later when looking through the newlyweds’ snapshots. Ultimately, they will find that the sun favored the lighter bride over the dark shadow of the African-American groom. The camera’s struggle to balance two ends of the pigment spectrum is a direct result of a mindset about photography that arose from the time of slavery, that has focused on denying nonwhites an identity, and that has persisted since the Civil War. Through a misconstrued representation of African Americans’ pigments and personalities on film, the photographic industry deprived non-whites of an authentic photographic existence (a presence in photographs), furthering their lack of social identity.

Image Source

Image Source

Since their debut, cameras have been thought by society to provide the best way of preserving meaningful points in time. Consumers’ utilization of cameras came at a time when white individuals were the predominant consumers of photographs, which was a result of the fact that whites had access to and could afford such technology. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement of 1964, Polaroid cameras cost $119.95; meanwhile a less advanced Kodak camera could be purchased for $36.75 (Pearson). Affording a camera for many African Americans was difficult at this time, as many were barely making the minimum wage, which would have allotted them $52 per week (Pearson). In this instance, cameras were considered a luxury and would take up a large amount of the weekly income, which did not make the purchase impossible, but much less achievable. Due to this, marketers predetermined consumers’ identities in the realm of developing pictures and favored fair-skinned complexions, discriminating against non-whites. Catering to the demographics of the consumers, the science of photography based its film development on a white model. In her article “Teaching the Camera to See My Skin,” Syreeta McFadden explains, “Unless you were doing your own [photo] processing, you took your roll of film to a lab where the technician worked off a reference card with a perfectly balanced portrait of a pale-skinned woman.” Due to her personal dissatisfaction with the way her skin tone was being captured (in one photograph, she would be depicted with a dark charcoal pigment, but in the next, she would appear having a creamy coffee color), she became a photographer herself to better understand the imaging disparity. This discrepancy can be attributed to the standard image for developing, referred to as “Shirley cards,” as Shirley was the woman pictured posing. McFadden goes on to prove that having “a white body as a light meter” leaves “all other skin tones [to] become deviations from the norm” (McFadden). Since African Americans were nearly the complete opposite of the standard, the exposures always came out coloring them darker than their true hue. This presented a problem for events such as an interracial wedding, as I demonstrate in my opening example. The photographer would struggle with providing the appropriate lighting so as to avoid washing out the white person without making the non-white person a dark shadow.

In fact, McFadden shows that the white standard was not lifted until the mid-1990s, where “models fully shifted away from Shirley to be inclusive of [a] full range of skin tones” (McFadden). When we look back at what was happening in history with the struggle of the Civil Rights movement, long after the conclusion of the Civil War, it becomes clear that although slavery may have been abolished, black Americans still faced many of the challenges to establishing a social identity that they encountered during slavery. For photography scientists, it had never been important to create cameras and developing techniques for members of society that did not matter. Although the act of slavery has been abolished for a century and a half, people continue to carry on racial biases by denying equal life-like replication abilities of non-whites’ images in photographs.  In realizing the equipment’s discreet racism, McFadden powerfully remarks, “If we are invisible, we are unvalued and inhuman. Beasts. Black bodies accepted as menacing, lit in ways that cloak our features in shadows” (McFadden).

The camera, an inanimate object itself, cannot consciously spread prejudice and discrimination. However, the minds that manufacture it and develop its stills should be advised to its position as a vessel for undermining non-whites’ social identities, inhibiting their interaction and association with society. After knowing this, the question remains: how do we fight against subtle forms of slavery’s legacy of racism ingrained in our world? For McFadden, she takes the power of the shutter in her own hands. By learning about how photography works, she has been able to manipulate different settings, such as exposure speed, to better accommodate what the lens finds to be a “deviant” from the norm. This does not erase the uneasiness at taking a photograph and hoping to be able to see herself, but it gives her the liberty to give herself an identity, something so many before her had been deprived of.


Works Cited

McFadden, Syreeta. “Teaching the Camera to See My Skin.” BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed, Inc., 2 Apr. 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2014.

Pearson, Stephen. “The Year 1964.” The People History.The People History Where People Memories and History Join, 2004-2014. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.