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Underground Railroad Freedom Center

August 18, 2004

Slavery's Harsh History Is Portrayed in Promised Land


CINCINNATI - Gaze out the southern windows of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and it is easy to see why this new museum devoted to slavery and resistance has found such a resonant home here. A suspension bridge - John A. Roebling's rococo prelude to his Brooklyn Bridge - stretches away from the museum, spanning the Ohio River. On the bridge's far side, in Kentucky, human beings were once owned and inherited, bought and sold. But on this spot in Ohio, now inside the curved walls of the handsome buildings whose shape echoes the river's meanderings, those same slaves would have been free. Before the Civil War, the Ohio River marked the borderland dividing the Southern slave states from the North. The Ohio was, in song and lore, the Jordan; across it lay the Promised Land.

That promised land is where the museum stands. One achievement of this center through much of its three floors of film, activity and exhibition is to maintain the reach of the bridge, touching the darkness of what once was and the light that might yet be. The center's chief architect was Walter Blackburn, the grandson of slaves. The center's exhibits also promise "to promote an understanding of the horrors of slavery, the active resistance movements, and the achievement of freedom against the odds." And despite some problems in their conception, they do: slavery's evil becomes palpable; so does a sense of progressive enlightenment.

On the museum's second floor, for example, is its central exhibit: a 19th-century slave pen, moved from a nearby Kentucky farm, whose rough-hewn walls once held human chattel. It functioned as a 20-foot-by-30-foot warehouse, in which live human merchandise would be stored until it could be sold at a profit. Next to the pen is a list of its former owner's possessions, which included 32 slaves, like "one Negro child, Matilda" (value: $200), along with a kitchen cupboard and a copper kettle.

Yet the harshness of the slave pen also gives way to something more uplifting. The film "Brothers of the Borderland," introduced by Oprah Winfrey and shown in a surround-sound theater, is a tale of interracial redemption: a white minister and a free black man join forces to help a slave escape.

Enslavement and liberation: those are the museum's recurring juxtapositions, accomplished even with its slim collection. Finding balance between these main poles is no mean feat in a subject as vexed as American slavery.

This does not mean the museum is free of missteps. There is, for example, too much interference with the spare effect of the slave pen, which now includes an intrusive wooden slab, inscribed with ineffectual verse. Other matters are too overwrought, like the labels for the museum buildings: "Pavilion of Courage" and "Pavilion of Perseverance." There are also more serious problems as the museum's suggested exhibition path leads toward the modern day.

Such problems are worth examining closely, if only because of the museum's importance. Its executive director is Spencer R. Crew, formerly director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. It had already raised more than $102 million before opening earlier this month. And its influence is expected to be significant, with at least 25 African-American cultural buildings planned across the United States, including the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington and the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.

Here the balance that is the museum's greatest virtue may also be associated with its greatest flaw. The museum's notion seems to be that everything must ultimately offer an entertaining and inspirational lesson. As a result, the subject's darkness becomes fairly uniform; so does the quality of the light. It can seem as if the center were endorsing a new pop political culture: not the culture of identity and pride, nor the culture of anger and restitution, but a political culture of therapeutic activism.

According to the center's mission statement, for example, its stories are meant to illustrate "courage, cooperation and perseverance in the pursuit of freedom." The center is meant to "encourage every individual to take a journey that advances freedom and personal growth." Mr. Crew writes, "We hope to inspire similar efforts on behalf of freedom in the modern-day world," an effort to which half the third floor is devoted.

The Underground Railroad, this museum's primary focus, is put in service to that vision. In recent years the Underground Railroad - the networks of safe houses and guides that helped slaves escape north (40 percent of them crossing the Ohio) - has spurred a renaissance of scholarly and popular interest, with its portrayal of the races bound in a single liberatory project. It provided a great healing metaphor for the American psyche, and it is meant to do that duty here as well. The Underground Railroad knit the races together in a single project, white abolitionists working alongside free blacks and fleeing slaves. In conjunction with Smithsonian Books, the center is even publishing a richly illustrated anthology edited by the historian David W. Blight: "Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory." Many of the exhibits, even those for younger children, are informed by this scholarship.

Yet in its emphasis on activism, the center regularly taps at the same time into melodrama and myth. In the film "Brothers of the Borderland," for example, the fleeing slaves are set upon by drooling hounds and drawling slave hunters. Elsewhere, organized resistance is stressed and codes and hiding places described, even though many scholars, some in the center's own book, point out that such conceptions were largely overturned by a 1961 classic, "The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad," by Larry Gara (reissued in 1996, University Press of Kentucky).

Later scholarship has modified points and emphases, but the force of Mr. Gara's argument remains. Much that is assumed about the Underground Railroad, he argued, is more folklore than fact. After Emancipation, for example, whites wanted to exaggerate the accomplishments of the Underground Railroad; before Emancipation, slave owners wanted to exaggerate its threat. But there is no evidence, Mr. Gara insisted, of a systematically organized enterprise. The numbers of escaped slaves were fewer than believed. And the slaves were hardly passive fugitives helped by heroic whites. Nor, Mr. Gara argued, was the Railroad centrally important in overturning slavery.

In the center's exhibits, the slaves may not be passive but many of the old myths have been resurrected without a hint of qualification. The theme of political liberation overshadows nuance. The result is almost the opposite of what we expect from a classical museum: specificity is filtered away.

Then comes another twist: the ultimate point is to spur political action. So on the third floor, after a sober, heavily textual history of slavery, comes the Hall of Everyday Freedom Heroes, which offers portraits of heroes, some of whom are linked to African-American history in its long struggles: Muhammad Ali or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Frederick Douglass.

But the list has broader ambitions. Harvey Milk, who fought for gay rights, is present; so is Mother Jones, who fought for labor unions; and Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, who ended up in the Soviet gulag. The list of heroes includes Pablo Casals, who refused to play his cello in Franco's Spain; Todd Beamer, the airline passenger who fought against the 9/11 hijackers; Syed Ali, the Brooklyn man who stopped a fellow Muslim from burning a synagogue; and the Navajo code talkers, whose native language stymied the Japanese in World War II.

Is this, then, what it all comes down to? Acting decently, dissenting when necessary, taking risks for beliefs? Perhaps, but there is something about the gross disparities of scale in this list that undermines the center's main project, almost reducing slavery to a civil liberties issue.

The final series of exhibits, "The Struggle Continues," pushes the lessons even further. In a long hall, multimedia images flash on walls and ceiling, showing what are meant to be contemporary examples of racism and oppression: Palestinians fleeing Israeli soldiers; women working at a cigarette factory; the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross. On touch screens are examples of continuing struggles for freedom. Touch the categories slavery, hunger, illiteracy, tyranny, racism and genocide, and contemporary examples appear. The Sudan, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan are found. But the United States appears under the category of hunger. Under racism appears the "increased suspicion" of Muslims or those of Middle Eastern background at airports.

The large and the small, the clear and the questionable and the wrongheaded, are combined in a smorgasbord of injustices and discontents. At one time the risk in a museum about persecution would have been identity politics and the nursing of resentment; now, as if in correction, the risk is in treating the wounds as part of an undifferentiated political miasma.

At the exhibit's end, in a room called Dialogue Zone, a social worker greets visitors, who may feel overwhelmed by the trauma - or perhaps even upset that the original subject, so powerfully touched upon, has been so lost in a cloud of righteous feeling. One posted ground rule reads, "Avoid terms and phrases which define, demean or devalue others, and use words that are affirmative and reflect a positive attitude." Right!

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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