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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.
Update: The two posts on this subject have been combined for a short post at The Atlantic. Thanks again for the thoughtful feedback.
Thanks to all of you who left comments in response to the recent story out of Richmond, Virginia, about the decorative art that was attached to three statues along Monument Avenue. The goal of the protester was to remind visitors and others that Richmond’s history extends beyond its preoccupation with its Confederate and may have also wanted to show that the monuments in question were erected at a time when African Americans were barred from local government and the kinds of conversations that directly shape how a local community remembers its collective past.
The post (as well as the online news reports) brought out some very strong views, but I am especially intrigued by those readers who not only approve of the additions of the plaques, but with the removal of the monuments. One reader had this to say:
I’m suggesting that’s an overly narrow framing of the issue, which should be: who gets to decide what messages take up our public space TODAY? Your view strikes me as giving too much privilege to the white supremacists who put up all the monuments in the first place. Just because they had that power once doesn’t entitle their “monuments” to deference for all time. I respect your scholarly approach to this, but I disagree – I’d rather see these monuments removed to a “Museum of Racism”.
I thought I would take just a few moments to clarify my position. First, I don’t believe that monuments to the past necessarily warrant an indefinite life span. I can think of any number of examples where I believe the removal of monuments and memorials are justified from the toppling of statues of King George III at the beginning of the American Revolution to the pulling down of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. In those two examples, however, their removal functioned as part of the end of a government or revolution. I’m sure we could just easily come up with other examples justifying the removal of a historical marker of one sort or another.
Bonus Material: “Adolf Hitler admired Lincoln’s attack upon state’s rights and emulated Lincoln by destroying the last vestiges of “statal rights” in the German Federal Republic. Lincoln, Marx, Engles, and Hitler–what a band of brothers!” Kennedy, Lincoln’s Marxists, 264.
From the dynamic duo that brought you such classics as The South Was Right and Myths of American Slavery and inspired a new generation of whacky books such Lincoln Uber Alles and Lincoln’s Marxists:
“The United States maintains the most cordial of relationships with Saudi Arabia, a nation that ended slavery almost one hundred years AFTER it was ended in the South. Contrast the treatment of the South with that of Saudi Arabia as it relates to the issue of slavery. Which nation is most often condemned, ridiculed, and scorned due to the issue of slavery?” Myths of American Slavery, p. 63.