Plantation Lullabies

The slave pen has been Swiffered®. The cleanliness of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's centerpiece, an 1830 slave pen salvaged from a Northern Kentucky farm, transcends "comp

Aug 18, 2004 at 2:06 pm

The slave pen has been Swiffered®. The cleanliness of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's centerpiece, an 1830 slave pen salvaged from a Northern Kentucky farm, transcends "company's coming" tidiness.

The spirits of slaves who feared and died in that wooden structure fly today among us. They're disappointed at our politeness. "Don't clean that shit up," they're saying.

We want to rap about slavery, but in awe and wonder of how stoic slaves got over — not about how slavery still overwhelms us.

After a decade of begging, networking, hype, splintering off and an estimated $110 million, the slave museum now welcomes us, so far dedicated to furthering Cincinnati's rep as a nice city with an underbelly hankering for the tipping point.

But first a warning in two words: It's not. It's not what you'll think. It's not enough.

It's not pretty.

What's ugliest is our behavior surrounding the museum's construction, its meaning and even its future.

Already, some know it's not going to be the flashpoint of deep and meaningful racial dialogue and togetherness its backers want from it. In Cincinnati — as in America — how deeply we've wronged one another around race is in the rearview and monolithic territory is the next rest stop. We like our racial answers easy, our minority groups lumped together and our reconciliation not so much.

Freedom Center camps break down like this: supporters, defected supporters, naysayers and well-meaning well wishers. Then there are the protesters.

Folks have splintered so passionately, it feels like the antebellum South, like slave masters squaring off against abolitionists. More prevalent still are the squishy people, those unsure of how they're supposed to feel. They're first cousins of swing voters waiting to be galvanized by a single emotional flutter.

And I feel like commandeering a bullhorn in the city center to shout, "It's just a museum!" That wouldn't turn any heads, because slavery is America's lingering illness. We're sick with it.

Blacks either hop along on slavery-encrusted crutches or we wanna get over it like some whites who sniff at its utterance: "I never owned slaves, and you weren't a slave."

Here's the overarching gimmick: It's a lose/lose proposition selling the relevance of an institution to an institution. And that's what this is.

Savvy administrators will lasso confusion and hostility and use it to build substantive programming. Then sell it to America.

Easier written than done. Minus the evil of human chattel, the museum's ideology is much like slavery itself — a means to an end requiring backbreaking teamwork.

Only instead of acreage to plow and horses to shoe, the museum is poised to open a can of whup ass on racism, bigotry, white skin privilege and the misappropriated histories of people of color. Meantime, niggas obsess over what minority landed what Freedom Center contract and big-money white funders nervously watch their tax deductions white out the hurt of history.

If you think niggas had it bad hunched in those cotton and tobacco fields, wait until a misstep in programming, a lag in outreach or — gasp! — it becomes another postmodern colored country club. There'll be a beating down on the Ohio River like Margaret Garner never got.

All told, the museum wants to hold aloft America's most painful historic episode for self-motivating change. We're to make like Super Hero Abolitionists dispatched from the Big House, flying about eradicating racism at every turn.

During a sneak tour I talked my way into, I scoured around looking for a progressive plantation presentation. I wanted to see slave catchers — real people — on horseback cracking whips at the heads of museum patrons, to sully my shoes trudging dirt and sand floors, to encounter auctioneers hustling us onto platforms for inspection and sale.

Here's a T-shirt: "I went to the Freedom Center and all I got was confused."

Galleries intended as timelines through the slave trade are difficult to navigate. Their walls are so jammed with dates, reprinted news articles and manufactured artifacts they appear as plans for exhibits.

I had a brush with overseers during my visit. Twice I was hovered over by two silver-haired white men also touring the museum. They were slinking about, gauging responses of (black?) patrons.

"Whaddya think of the museum and the exhibits?" the first asked, inching up on me and eyeballing my note pad.

"This ain't no reparations," I thought in Toby-speak. "I'm still taking it all in," I said.

The second man lagged barely behind me, so close I could smell him. Finally in front of me, he eyeballed me warily until I ditched him by the sculpture of leg irons.

By the time I went through the slave pen, I was as spent as a runaway slave.

That 200 African men and women were slammed inside suffocating, urinating and defecating on themselves and considering suicide could have been jaw dropping. But not when the shack's been spruced up, buffed to a shine. Its floors rival my own, which I Swiffer® obsessively.

When it comes to slavery, this next-to-Godliness cleanliness will ultimately be our undoing. We've been too fresh and too clean about slavery. And it's making slaves of us all. Give us free.

Kathy's collection of columns, Your Negro Tour Guide: Truths in Black and White, is available in bookstores now.