Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Who Owns History? Slavery Artifacts for Sale on Ebay; Let's Buy Some and Make Sure They Have a Proper Home

Extremely Rare Mated Set of Two Small Child's Size Slave Hand-Forged Rattle Shackles & Made for the Slave Trade
c. 1800 19th Century, Set of Two, Small Child's Size Slave Shackles, Hand-forged Iron, With Internal "Rattles," Choice Very Fine. 
This impressive set of child size slave shackles are African made for the Slave Trade, although also found located in the United States from time to time. These are described as being, "crab-shaped rattler leg shackles," on page 20-21, in the book, "THE ART AND HISTORY OF BLACK MEMORABILIA" by Larry Vincent Buster. They measures 6" x 5.25" with an opening of 4.75" x 2.75" and 8" x 5.25" with an opening of 4.75" x 2.5". 
Based on the circumference of the openings these were of size to be used on children. The oddly-shaped hand-wrought devices contain lateral "pockets" that contain pieces of metal that rattle as the wearer moves about so that his or her location could easily be determined by the sound of the rattle being made. Each has a pair of small chain links attached at the top. One shackle was placed on each leg and a chain threaded through the attached rings, secured with a lock. A museum quality, important historical pair of Child's Size Slave Shackles, having a natural patina that would be excellent for display. (2 items).

One of my favorite episodes in the history of genre television was an installment of the much beloved Alien Nation series which ran for a few years in the early 1990s. Alien Nation, a not so subtle play on the phrase "alienation" focused on how a race of extraterrestrials struggled to assimilate into Earth society after their slave ship was stranded here. Upon arrival, the Newcomers became a metaphor through which to explore racism, ethnocentrism, and prejudice. Yes, it could be overwrought and hackneyed. Alien Nation was also wonderfully sharp and incisive.

To point, there was an episode of Alien Nation which was centered on how one of the Newcomers' high elders was disgusted by the ways that the artifacts of his people were sold to human collectors. Ultimately, the material culture of his civilization was reduced to a fetish object, one utterly disconnected from the legacy of blood, struggle, loss, and triumph which produced it. Their chains, shackles, restraints, religious icons, and other artifacts were reduced to kitsch. No historical weight or context was present beyond that which could accrue novelty, and points for uniqueness, for those who owned such intimately personal objects.

In all, popular culture is oftentimes a stand-in for sociopolitical struggles in the "real world" (as opposed to the pure imaginaries through which we pursue the politics of pleasure and fantasy). But, what to do when history becomes quite literally the playful, curious, and "interesting" objects of collectors and curators who may (or may not) have any personal connection to those things they covet?

We all "own" history. However, some of us are more connected to particular histories than others may be. Black Americans are part of a diaspora. Much of our shared historical and cultural experience is framed by a narrative of disruption caused by the Middle Passage, and the many moments of destruction it entailed, and necessitated. Ironically, blacks in the New World are also an example of generation and creation--where modernity and new civilizations were created by the movements of millions of people from one hemisphere to another.

Whole cultures and peoples were made by the Black Atlantic. Peoples were also destroyed. Peoples were (re)invented. As such, material objects and artifacts were both lost and found. While it should be no surprise, I am nonetheless moved that some of them would turn up for sale on Ebay.

A slave manacle collected in Marrakesh, Morocco, possibly 18th century.Weight about 4 lbs, larger ring about 5" x 3-3/8"inside diameter, smaller ring about 3" x 3".The keyed lock is functional. 
We are listing new selections of rare and hard to find ethnographica, please see our other eBay auctions. 
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To my eyes, there is something horribly amiss when slave manacles, chains, and other objects of torture are reduced to "collectibles" on Ebay (and other sites), where they will become the property of  the highest bidder.

To me, the personal is, and will always remain, the political. Because this is a first principle, I have a proposition to offer. We Are Respectable Negroes is a small to modest site by Internet standards. That having been said, I think we can do something important in regards to owning a small part of history, and seeing that a few material objects find a proper home. 

Thus, I am thinking about creating a Paypal account or other means through which we can offer up some small monies towards the cause of buying one of these artifacts. If each visitor to WARN offered up a quarter, or perhaps even a dollar, this could be accomplished in a day or so. 

Can we buy back some history and donate it to a worthy museum or collection? I would like to believe that we can. I will leave it up to all of you. Do post a comment and indicate what I should do to this end.  I will follow through appropriately.


Tom said...

Jesus. I'd contribute.

CNu said...

CDV - would it be possible for you to kickstart an initiative within afrodemia to aid and abet the Kinseys - so that instead of re-creating the wheel on a microscopic scale - you could amplify the force and motion of the biggest wheel already spinning in this space, make folk across your world aware of their efforts, and, possibly help document and capture the hardwon subject matter expertise and connections that the Kinsey's have developed over the course of their decades long pursuit of these aims?

chaunceydevega said...

@Tom. That is one!

@Frank. That is two!

@Cnu. I didn't even think of that as a prospect. Would we have to pitch it as going to a an exhibit or do you think people would contribute to our modest aims, i.e. I would do the research to make sure that I could get it in a collection and then WARN would raise the funds, buy the objects, and then forward them?

I will look into seeing if that can be done anonymously or I can get a colleague to be the front, this could be big. Lets pilot it here and see what the interest is.

Great suggestion though.

CNu said...

I think you pitch it as working to amplify/continue/sustain/enlarge the concentrated excellence that the Kinsey's have already achieved.

Your project then becomes one of organizing from within your distinctive sphere to help them further their goal of building an independent and self-sustaining institution.

To me, it's always all about projects and institution building, and I am adamantly and vehemently opposed to issues, events and personality driven activities which have had us going around in circles for far too many decades now.

Oliver said...

I think this is a wonderful idea, and I agree that if it is possible, harnessing the power of kickstarter would be a great way to accomplish this.

sledge said...

I'd send a few dollars to help this effort. That child's shackle is especially heart sickening.

hcaparoso said...

I think this is an excellent idea. I would definitely contribute and I don't even have much money! Makes you wonder about the kind of person who would want this in their "collection".

Anonymous said...

Despite my troubled feeling regarding the selling of holocaust items etc.

I propose a fund to purchase said items to destroy not to house in a museum.

Anonymous said...

Kickstart is a great vehicle for such and endeavor.

Anonymous said...

Count me in. I think it's a great idea.

Anonymous said...

I would definitely contribute the money and gather my friends to contribute as well. This sort of memorbialia deserves to be preserved in a museum; not in the private collection of just anyone.

Comrade Physioprof said...

The thought of someone purchasing these items to possess for their own private personal amusement is stomach-turning. So yes, I would definitely be up for contributing to a fund to obtain them for assembly into a curated non-private collection.

Tom said...

My other comment is crassly practical: maybe keep it as quiet as you can for as long as you can. A big noisy effort to buy these items on Ebay is automatically going to drive up prices and entice frauds.

chaunceydevega said...

@Cnu.Good idea. As I said, still ruminating. I am going start off with one or two items and see what happens.

@Sledge. Count you in. Good.

@Hc. Thanks, we have a few of us, if people gave 1 or 2 dollars over the course of a week or so we should be able to get something.

@Anon. Destruction is not an option my friend.

@Anon 2. Thanks. We need the public to know and see this history in places other than large national museums.

@Comrade. Thanks too. We are going to figure out the logistics.

@Tom. Market forces. Hadn't thought about that. We are going to be quiet at first and see what happens. If we can get a few, the kickstart option may work next.

Tom said...

I mean kickstart sounds good. Maybe it can work for a while without tipping off the sellers. I dunno.

Anonymous said...

Count me in too!

Waterwitch said...

OK, I've just chipped in for this project. It is so important--those hideous objects need to displayed in memory of those who wore them. As a white woman, I didn't really GET it until I saw an iron collar/cage at the Cabildo in New Orleans. The child's shackle is unspeakable. These objects convey the grief and horror more than any words can. I pray for the success of this project, and for the rest of the souls who were forced to wear these things.

chaunceydevega said...

@Water. How kind. This is a shared history we all have to own.

Their_child said...

Hi Chauncey,

This is a very interesting post! I am a grad student studying colonial era slavery and the collecting and interpretation of objects related to slavery. I came across this blog post while searching for articles about the ethical issues that arise when collecting objects related to the slave trade.
As an avid eBay buyer and seller I have come across all kinds of horrible historical artifacts like nooses, mammy and sambo figurines, golliwogs and chains. I have in the past purchased some of the less expensive items. In my mind I was doing it to get them off the market. I chose them carefully making sure I was buying originals and not reproductions. In the end I wonder what does my purchase really do? It still puts money into the hands of someone who has the gall to sell that object instead of donating it to an appropriate museum. That ended up bothering me more than the question of who would purchase it since many black people buy these objects for a variety of reasons. I did not want my money to go toward the purchase of another similar object and then another by a dealer who thinks these objects are a hot commodity. Especially when I know I cant afford to buy everything that is available.
If the problem is the selling of these objects on websites such as ebay then instead of enriching the sellers I suggest we petition them to stop selling such objects. I would encourage anyone interested in petitioning to focus on the many sellers who post ads for racist memorabilia without specifically marking the objects as racist and giving the context of why the object is seen as racist. There was a great petition that went around a few months ago against Etsy (similar to eBay but specifically for handmade & vintage items). Etsy's policy statement specifically says that they prohibit the sale of “…items that promote, support, or glorify hatred toward or otherwise demean people based upon: race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, disability, or sexual orientation…” . Yet there are plenty of fat red lipped bug eyed mammy objects for sale.
Anyway the petition got a lot of attention and some sellers took their items off the site. It did not completely solve the problem but it did have some effect without spending any money.
Also I would suggest that we not give any money to the Kinseys. They have plenty of money already and obsessively collect African Americana as it is. Instead perhaps any money collected could be donated to an African American history museum with the donation specifying that the money be used to increase it's collection. Many African American museums (like the one I used to work for)struggle with fundraising so I am sure they would be delighted to receive some help.

Ginny Smith said...

Hi Chauncey,

I am working on a final paper for an ethics class and found your page while doing some research on the web. My paper is going to examine whether or not it is ethical to own slave produced goods and personal affects as collectibles. I had the idea last week when I worked at an estate sale, the owners of the home are retired antiques dealers and they had for sale several antique Afro-American rag dolls that had been owned by slave children and six chairs that had been made by slaves. They had authentication for all of the items. May I ask your opinion of owning/selling these types of items versus items used as implements of slavery? Should they be owned by individuals or housed in a public space? And may I use you as a source? Thank you for your time.