Friday, November 8, 2013

Slave Memorabilia: On Sale at eBay

New York Historical Society
Some years ago I spent time in Louisville Kentucky. The memory that stands out most is driving through Bourbon country in a red convertible listening to music just a little too loud. I think both myself and the people I encountered shared a mutual appreciation of the exotic animal we found each other to be.

I was recently reminded of this trip while reading a post on the blog "We are Respectable Negros" entitled "eBay Removes Holocaust 'Memorabilia' From Its Website. Why do they Continue to Sell Artifacts Related to Enslavement of Black Americans?"

While driving around in my rented red convertible, I happened upon a store specializing in selling Africana items. Toward the back of the store I wandered myself right into another world. The shopkeeper had a display case of tools used by white slave owners to maintain the system of brutal oppression over human beings with darker complexions.

I was overwhelmed.

Pictured on the above: "According to a letter that accompanied these shackles upon their donation to the Historical Society in 1921, they were cut off teenage slave Mary Horn of Americus, Georgia, by Colonel William W. Badger of the 176th Regiment New York Volunteers, more than a year after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Mary is said to have belonged to a Judge Horn, who riveted the irons to her legs with his own hands to prevent her from walking to the next plantation to see her beloved, George. George begged Colonel Badger to free Mary from her shackles and supposedly held her over an anvil while Badger cut them off."

I read about slavery. I studied the Civil War. I thought I knew a lot about the era. As a young doctoral student at a progressive institution, I was developing an awareness of the ways in which what I know is a representation of the view of the world that people with power and privilege have.

Myriad are the things that weren't included in the lesson plans that my teachers provided me.

So there I was in the back of an Africana store face-to-face with manacles that bound the feet of human beings, whips that were used to enforce a system of terror upon their backs, tags that identified  and categorized what kind of property a particular human being was, and numerous price lists.

It was an overwhelming and powerful experience to be so close to something that for me, a white man, seems as remote as anything else I might read about in a history text book. I must have just stood there for 20 minutes looking silently. I don't even know if I moved. The owner of the store ended up standing next to me silently as well. The distant was no longer distant for me. Slavery was a tangible experience through those manacles that someone once was forced to wear--and strangely (or not) the oppression our country engaged in became even more incomprehensible for me.

I thought about buying the manacles. I thought about touching them and holding them. I ended up doing neither. It didn't feel like they were mine to touch or own. It felt like it would have been a violation to have done either.

The shopkeeper gave me hug. I thanked her and walked out of the store without saying another word. They seemed unneeded.

15 years later I'm still thinking about that store and experience.

I can see the complicated ways in which items from the Holocaust or slavery might be powerful items/tools for people to make deep and transformative connections to a distant past. I also worry, and believe, that very few people would actually respect these objects for what they are: a piece of a humanity that was discarded that should be honored, revered, and remembered.

I hope eBay shoppers think long and hard about what it means to own these items--and what it means to have owned people--prior to their purchase. 

There aren't any refunds. 


  1. Yes, Jay, these would seem to be horrific reminders of a cruel and inhumane time, but slavery still exists here and around the world, but it's hidden cleverly.

    1. Oh for sure! One wonders what sort of store might be selling more modern day slavery paraphernalia?