We’re Not There Yet: 1619 & Afterlives of the Black Atlantic

The year 2019 marks a harrowing anniversary: roughly 400 years ago, Jamestown colonists bought a group of enslaved Africans from English pirates. The twenty to thirty men and women that walked ashore in Virginia in 1619 became the first of 380,000 Africans forcibly taken from their homes and dragged in chains across the Atlantic to North America. From the very beginning, chattel slavery was integral to the building and creation of what we now know as America. The institution of slavery contributed to many of the things that make America so very American—as the editor of the brilliant New York Times 1619 Project explained:

Out of slavery—and the anti-black racism it required—grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system, diet and popular music, the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality, its slang, its legal system and the endemic racial fear and hatreds that continue to plague it to this day.”

The 1619 Project goes on to explore the truths found in this dark legacy, through contributions from the paper’s writers, including essays, poems, short fiction, photographs, and podcasts. Addressing issues as far-reaching as the birth of hip-hop to rush-hour traffic, the 1619 Project directly ties many aspects of contemporary American life back to slavery and its aftermath.

In addition to the 1619 Project, one can find many such commemorations around the country this year, but locally the most powerful response is the exhibition Afterlives of the Black Atlantic, currently on view at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. The show, drawn from the collections of the Allen and from private collectors, includes works by seminal contemporary artists such as Dawoud Bey, Leonardo Drew, Edouard Duval-Carrié, Robert Pruitt, José Rodríguez, Alison Saar, Hank Willis Thomas, Fred Wilson and others in dialogue with historical objects, all addressing the many unsettling legacies of the transatlantic slave trade, and the harsh truths left in its wake.

Oberlin as the location for this exhibition makes sense historically, as the small college town was an early center for abolition and a stop on the Underground Railroad. That isn’t to say the famously liberal town hasn’t seen its fair share of racial tensions: student sculptor Edmonia Lewis was accused of poisoning some of her white classmates, and subsequently dragged and beaten by a white mob in 1863. More recently a black student shoplifted from a local bakery, setting the stage for a farcical protest backed by the college, that ended with the bakery winning a multimillion-dollar defamation lawsuit last summer. Oberlin is rife with contradictions and, like any town in our vast nation, it reflects the racial bias that is sadly an ingrained aspect of American life.

Organized by Andrea Gyorody, the museum’s assistant curator of modern and contemporary art, and Matthew Francis Rarey, assistant professor of the arts of Africa and the Black Atlantic, the exhibition is not arranged chronologically or grouped by national origin. The works on view engage the complex vestiges of the Atlantic slave trade with a variety of approaches, techniques, and viewpoints.

Carrie Mae Weems, Grabbing Snatching Blink and You Be Gone, from the series Slave Coast, 1993, gelatin silver prints and offset lithograph, Ruth C. Roush Contemporary Art Fund, 1998.12A-C.

The work that most directly references the Black Atlantic is a triptych by Carrie Mae Weems, Grabbing Snatching Blink and You Be Gone. Made in the 1990s after the artist’s first trip to the West African Coast, Weems photographed the dark tunnels, passageways, and dungeons at the very place where so many millions stepped off their homeland to an unknown, terrifying future. The left and right images are stark, nebulous black and white photographs of the so-called House of Slaves at Goree Island, Senegal, where the famous “Door of No Return” opens to a white emptiness, the sea beyond it leading to death, or worse. The middle image, with its stark blood-red block letters, offers the viewer a terse explanation—in the simplest terms possible—how quickly one could be made “gone.” Gone as in never coming home; gone as in losing one’s identity, losing family, losing everything; gone as in vanished, erased, killed.

Many were sent to work the fields of the American South, but cotton wasn’t the only crop. One of the most easily seen vestiges of the slave trade in America today can be found in the aisles of every convenience store. The sugar that fuels our hideous American diet has a barbaric history. Known as “white gold,” sugar drove the trade in goods and people, moving across the Atlantic in triangular fashion. Sugar was big business, and by the time sugar plantations appeared across America’s South, the number of enslaved people needed to manage this unwieldly crop soared.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Revenge), 1991, plastic wrapped blue hard candies, Collection of Barbara and Howard Morse, New York

Sugar’s legacy is addressed by the most conspicuous work in the exhibition, a large blue rectangle of wrapped sugar candies laid out carefully on the gallery floor. Made by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Revenge) is a carpet made entirely of candy. Attendees are invited to help themselves to a piece or two, and presumably, as the exhibition continues, the carpet will erode, dwindle, as candies are eaten. It’s a grim reminder of the history of these sweet indulgences, and the lives that vanished as a result.

Vik Muniz, Valicia Bathes in Sunday Clothes, from the series Sugar Children, 1996, gelatin silver print, Gift of Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz, 2013.68.5

The gruesome history of sugar is also taken up by artist Vik Muniz. His series Sugar Children was made after spending time with families who work on sugar plantations on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. Using polaroid portraits, Muniz “drew” portraits of the children using sugar, the actual commodity responsible for their families’ poverty and the wealth of so many others. Muniz demonstrates that exploitative labor practices today are one of the sad legacies of the sugar slave trade.

Exhibition view, including Are We There Yet? (and other questions of proximity, destination, and relative comfort), by Kameelah Janan Rasheed, 2017, printed cloth banner, Collection of the artist.

Others works in the exhibition look at routes and mapping, diaspora, religion, the body, and belonging—but the large black banner hanging high on the gallery wall perhaps sums it up best: “Are We There Yet?” it screams. The question hangs over the room, unanswered. This simple phrase, posed by artist Kameelah Janan Rasheed, can mean so much—for those who made the crossing and to those, today, still enduring the fallout of an institution that supposedly ended over a hundred and fifty years ago. Black people suffered under slavery in this country for much longer than that; in fact, they have only been legally “free” for about fifty. No, we are certainly not there yet, but hopefully we are inching closer.