Thursday, March 24, 2011

Types of accuracy and falsehoods

The experience at the enslavement museum was amazing in many ways. The guide was obviously incredibly dynamic, and confronting my own feelings of inferiority while being yelled at, told to lower my eyes, even in that incredibly limited and safe setting was a very powerful way to empathize with the enslaved people. Voluntarily imposed discomfort which you know to be temporary, and which you know you could stop if you wanted, comes nowhere close to capturing the real feeling of being involuntarily forced into the same situation. I also thought the museum had great artifacts; one thing that especially stuck with me was the looks on the faces of the white people watching the man get burned alive.

My emotions were mixed. A fair number of the things she said I know to be untrue. For example, the story of Willie Lynch is a myth. And many of the claims she made about the Egyptians are dubious. These types of claims are something I’ve had to confront in the past listening to politically conscious hop hop. I understand why these claims exist, they fit with the narrative and the people who disapprove them are college professors, figures of authority, and historically that’s been the source of no shortage of racist retellings of history. One of the effects of systematic, government endorsed racism in America is creating a lack of faith in institutions among oppressed people.

I was struck by the contrast between the tour of the slavery museum and the tour of the Alabama capital. In the capital, although nothing was said that was precisely false, the overall message was incredibly deceptive, with no mention of slavery or segregation. By contrast, the overall message of the enslavement museum was right on, although some of the details were false. For example, the psychological tactics she described were used against slaves, even if they weren’t all described in a book at the time. Lynching was certainly a widespread and horrible fact of life, even if it wasn’t named after Willie Lynch, and although the Egyptians weren’t the first to invent quite everything, it is true that Africa had a rich and innovative culture long before the arrival of Europeans.

So in one respect, the details don’t really matter. But I do worry about the effect this might have on the credibility of the core arguments. I worry it provides ammunition to the opponents of progress. I’m also trying to take an honest look at the way I, as a white person, consider myself an authority over the museum curator, a black person.

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