The Occupy Movement has not been on my radar much since it took to the streets on September 17, 2011. I’ve found it difficult to identify with their stated goals and tactics, though I certainly sympathize with the frustration expressed over the economic direction of the country. Today I learned that earlier this week the Occupy Movement in New York City marked the 300th anniversary of the city’s first slave market, which happened to be located on Wall Street near Pearl and Water. On the face of it you may not see anything suspicious; after all, it looks like they are encouraging the community and the nation to remember an aspect of the city’s past that is all too often ignored. The organization, including Chris Cobb and a small group of mainly white protesters along with City Council member Jumaane Williams have organized a petition to place historic markers to commemorate the neighborhood’s ties to the history of slavery.
While there doesn’t seem to be anything problematic, if you listen closely there is actually something quite disturbing about the way in which the Occupy Movement has chosen to frame this lesson in history and memory. Here is a short excerpt from the Huffington Post:
Cobb, who is white, said he sees clear connections between Wall Street’s role as an engine of the slave trade, the public’s ignorance of that history and what he describes as corporate America’s current exploitation of poor and middle-class workers. As Occupy Wall Street protesters have been evicted form public spaces across the country, the movement has shifted from static occupations to sporadic actions. Those efforts include occupying vacant and foreclosed homes, as well as attempts to shut down ports and to call attention to the situation of workers inside such esteemed intuitions as the auction house Sotheby’s.
“We were in the theory phase before the raid [on Zuccotti Park]. Now we are in the action phase, responding to the theory we were talking about,” Cobb said. Cobb sees the move to recognize and mark the slave market space as a natural next step in the effort to expose the evils of economic inequality. “It’s hard to talk about race with white people in general, because there are a lot of misunderstandings,” said Cobb. “But I think there is a place where a conversation can begin, and that is with fairness. It’s only fair that there be some recognition here.”
My concern is with the way in which the history of slavery and the slave trade in New York City is being connected to the agenda and economic outlook of the Occupy Movement. The petition itself says very little about the history that they wish to mark, but it is the close comparison made between the economic hardships that too many Americans are currently facing and slavery itself that is truly disturbing. We can certainly draw connections between Wall Street, the slave trade, the public’s ignorance, and the current economic hardships faced by middle-class workers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we will learn anything interesting. In fact, I would suggest that such vague comparisons have little to do with history at all.
The other thing that needs to be addressed is the claim that this history is being ignored. Yes, most Americans are ignorant of the history of slavery, but than again Americans are ignorant of many aspects of their history so this is not much of an argument. Cobb and company have created a false memory since it ignores a great deal of work in the New York City area to come to terms with its slave past. Start with the New York Historical Society’s recent exhibit on the history of slavery. The GSA’s African American Burial Ground project is currently working in lower Manhattan to preserve a burial ground that contains the remains of over 400 men, women, and children. In addition to a wide range of projects that can be explored there is also a growing body of scholarly resources that sheds light on just about every aspect of slave life and the rich history of race during its formative period. A couple of notable examples includes Jill Lepore’s New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, Slavery in New York, edited by Ira Berlin and Leslie M. Harris, and Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery by Anne Farrow.
Again, let me be clear that this has nothing to do with not wanting to see historic markers placed in the Wall Street district. The more we know about our history the better. The concern is with the blatant way in which this crucial and sad chapter of our past is being used to advance the Occupy Movement’s political goal or salvage what is left of it. To that extent I see little difference between Occupy Wall Street’s handling of the history of slavery and those Southern Heritage advocates who would have us believe that slavery was a blessing to both bondsman and master.