Occupy Wall Street Teaches History and False Memory

Virginia History Textbook

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.

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23 comments… add one
  • The Corrector Jan 2, 2012 @ 13:46

    Mr. Levin:
    In an article that deals with the public commemoration and historical knowledge of slavery in New York City, it is interesting that you mention an exhibit that closed four years ago as “recent” and fail to mention a permanent exhibition and institution exclusively devoted to telling the story of enslaved New Yorkers that has been created since then.

    Therefore, a note of correction, please. You state, “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.” The African Burial Ground is not a GSA project any longer, nor has it been for some time. For nearly five years, the African Burial Ground has become The African Burial Ground National Monument, a unit of the National Park Service. The visitor center at this national park is free to the public and uses interactive displays and site films to explain the story of slavery in New York to over 100,000 people per year.

    This federal institution is a permanent repository of this historical memory, but it can certainly be positively augmented with historical signage, which can help to ameliorate the endemic and persistent denial of the reality of Northern Slavery.

    • Kevin Levin Jan 2, 2012 @ 13:51

      Thanks for the clarification. I am familiar with the project primarily through your Twitter feed.

      This federal institution is a permanent repository of this historical memory, but it can certainly be positively augmented with historical signage, which can help to ameliorate the endemic and persistent denial of the reality of Northern Slavery.

      I’ve said more than once that I am not averse to signage. My concern was with the way in which the history was framed.

      Finally, and for what it’s worth, a NPS employee should have the courtesy to use his real name.

  • charles j ayers Dec 29, 2011 @ 4:19

    ps. The idea of employing slavery in this country started with the impulse of greed among wealthy white men in places of power. This comparison is an apt warning sign.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 29, 2011 @ 4:22

      The connections made by Mr. Cobb constitute a gross distortion of the history of slavery. Let me be clear that I am not suggesting that markers are a bad idea or that we do not need financial reform on Wall Street.

      • charles j ayers Dec 29, 2011 @ 4:41

        In my view you may be under estimating the extremes to which corporate power would go to exploit the 99% for their own profit if only allowed. Slavery still exists in parts of the world. Not only does it honor the souls who were enslaved to remember them but it also provides a reminder as to what heinous acts mankind is capable of.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 29, 2011 @ 4:51

          I haven’t said anything about the limits of corporate greed because that is not the subject of this blog. At the same time no one would deny that banks and the financial system helped to prop up and even deepen slavery’s influence during the antebellum period. Yes, slavery does still exist in parts of the world, but as far as I can tell the proposed markers were to tell the story of Wall Street’s role.

          My point was simply that Mr. Cobb’s understanding of the history of slavery in the United States seems rather limited and too interwoven with his very legitimate concerns about corporate greed and its influence on the economy today.

          • charles j ayers Dec 29, 2011 @ 6:48

            I don’t see why one should necessarily be an expert on the history of slavery in the US to remind us of its more obvious evils and how they could and do re-occur in the modern world. A sort of warning. I’m certainly thankful that we have historians like yourself to fill in the details but Mr Cobb’s contribution seems no less important in its way. Many important projects advancing the cause of freedom have been initiated by people who are not experts in related fields.

            • Kevin Levin Dec 29, 2011 @ 6:56

              I am not suggesting that Mr. Cobb is not in a position to make a contribution to our understanding of slavery’s history in New York history. What I am suggesting is that when he makes the kinds of statements that are cited in the post he moves us away of that mark.

              • charles j ayers Dec 29, 2011 @ 14:13

                I don’t agree. I knew virtually nothing about slavery in nyc and since Mr Cobb’s project I’ve begun to look into and see much more of what was there. It’s a beginning. So many New Yorkers have no idea of what has come before in this regard. So my suggestion would be to support Mr Cobb and then, if you see specific mistakes point them out, thus employing your greater knowledge in a useful way rather than by making the sort of generalizations you’ve made. The only “mistake” I see that Cobb has made is one of omission, one that you, if you have this greater knowledge, could provide by joining with him in revealing the facts. Now that, thanks to Cobb, many more people, like myself, are taking a closer look, we’d be glad to hear more of these details which would be much more useful than negative comments that really contribute nothing.

                • Kevin Levin Dec 29, 2011 @ 14:35

                  I think that’s great. As I pointed out in the post there is a rich history on the subject. I haven’t made any generalizations. I offered specific points for readers to consider and I stand by those points. Thanks for the offer to join Mr. Cobb’s project. I wish him all the best and I am sure that if he is sincerely interested in getting the history right that he will consult one of the many expert historians in the NYC area. Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment.

  • charles j ayers Dec 29, 2011 @ 4:13

    Chris Cobb is not trying to exploit anything. He’s an intelligent, conscientious, concerned person who cares deeply about people and whose only motivation is that justice is better served.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 29, 2011 @ 4:16

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I don’t doubt for one second that Mr. Cobb is all those things you describe, but when he draws the kinds of conclusions about the history of slavery as a precursor to or part of a narrative that extends to our current problems with Wall Street that, in my view, constitutes a kind of exploitation of the past.

  • Michael Lynch Dec 22, 2011 @ 14:22

    But–but–I thought you were an agenda-driven Yankee who wanted to gloss over the history of slavery in the North and do whatever you could to promote liberalism! I read it on the Internet!


    • Kevin Levin Dec 22, 2011 @ 14:46

      I know, I know…I am just as surprised. 🙂

      • Dudley Bokoski Dec 22, 2011 @ 18:12

        There are things which probably should be off limits to comparison. There is a vast difference between being disadvantaged by an economic system and being kept in bondage by a system of human exploitation. I don’t doubt the group meant well, but as when people compare individuals or groups to Hitler it is an ackward comparison which makes you wonder if the person speaking shouldn’t go back to college and sue their instructors for educational malpractice.

        • Dudley Bokoski Dec 22, 2011 @ 18:16

          Of course, my point about educational malpractice would have been more effective had I not misspelled awkward! Maybe I should take my own advice (or at least be less judgmental on reflection).

  • Pat Young Dec 22, 2011 @ 13:08

    I would also note that City Council Member Jumaane Williams, the proponent of the legislation, is himself black and represents a district with a very large African American and Afro-Caribbean population.

  • Pat Young Dec 22, 2011 @ 12:59

    When the New-York Historical Society opened its exhibit on slavery in New York, the most common reaction was “I thought slavery was a Southern thing”. Most ordinary New Yorkers knew little about slavery here and few understood that it persisted into the 19th Century. Only a small sliver of the population of this great city went to the exhibit.

    When the African burial ground was found next to Federal Plaza, a lot of leaders just wanted the valuable real estate developed without regard for the people whose remains lay there.

    I doubt many folks here have heard of Jill Lapore’s book, let alone read it.

    Typically, popular white memory of African American New York begins in the 1920s with the Harlem Renaissance. This was a flowering of culture that we can feel proud of. The treatment of black people before that blessed period is simply not known outside the black community, by and large.

    The petition from Occupy Wall Street seems about as historically accurate as such petitions go, and is a damned sight more accurate than a lot of battlefield preservation petitions I’ve been asked to sign.

    Obviously there is a political motive to the desire to mark the site, as there is to mark the homes of the Founders, or early American physicians offices, or labor history sites. Sites are only marked if they are seen as relevant to some modern constituency.

    The marking of the slavery sites indicates 1) the contribution of blacks to the building of New York, something we don’t learn that much about here, 2) the involvement of the city’s well-off in profiting from slavery, 3) the amorality of markets. It is a useful counterpoint to the many plaques in the area which describe the market and the moguls who run it as responsible for the wealth and power of our country.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 22, 2011 @ 13:04

      For the most part, we don’t disagree.

      The petition from Occupy Wall Street seems about as historically accurate as such petitions go, and is a damned sight more accurate than a lot of battlefield preservation petitions I’ve been asked to sign.

      The problem is not simply that the petition doesn’t say much of anything, but that all indications suggest that the organizers hope to frame the history in a way that conforms with their present agenda. That is simply bad history and it’s unethical.

      • Pat Young Dec 22, 2011 @ 13:31

        Kevin, at the dedication of the African Burial Ground a few years back, Maya Angelou said that African Americans needed to preserve the site because “it is imperative that each of us knows that we own this country because it’s already been paid for.” In other words, she was framing history in light of the needs of the present generation.

        This may be unethical for you as a historian, but I don’t see it as unethical for a poet, a city councilman, or a political movement. It was such rhetoric that got the neglected burial ground remnant landmarked.

        Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/memorial-dedicated-african-burial-ground-article-1.228827#ixzz1hIr38v2e

        • Kevin Levin Dec 22, 2011 @ 13:41

          Let me try this again. I fully support the efforts of the African Burial Ground program as well as any effort to mark important history. That is not the issue for me. What I have a problem with is Occupy Wall Street playing with our understanding of slavery to suit their agenda. The attempt to frame the history of slavery in the Wall Street neighborhood in a way that reduces it to or compares it with bankers and the plight of the working class is absurd. Again, my concern is with the way in which they have chosen to view the past and not with the effort to preserve it.

          • Jim Dick Dec 23, 2011 @ 5:45

            I think the issue is when people of any political persuasion attempt (key word there) to use history to justify their current political agenda. We’ve seen it repeatedly throughout history how groups, rulers, and nations will glorify some historical moments while covering up others. Without really digging into details, most nationalist histories in the past have done just that in order to justify their existence.
            I think that’s one reason history is so controversial because the advances in historiography in the last fifty years have caused a significant revision in historical writing in order to present the most accurate interpretation of events regardless of political, religious, or nationalist opinions.
            Please note that all three of those opinions still find their way into historical writing. We’re still human after all.

  • Ray O'Hara Dec 22, 2011 @ 11:50

    It is about the present day situation. Just as the “Tea Party” also misrepresents the past.
    Neither of these groups are about historical remembrance anymore than the Libertarian movement is.
    They take events from the past just to try to give themselves a veneer of long time legitimacy.

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