11/04/2013 11:28 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

12 Years to Remember


By Tukufu Zuberi and Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier

I recently had the opportunity to screen Steve McQueen's new film, 12 Years a Slave. The careful reader might be wondering why I would go see such a film. They might ask if I was simply trying to exacerbate my anger quotient as Morgan Freeman is quoted as having said in a recent interview (see ). They might say that things are bad enough as they are, why punch yourself in the face with this evil of the past. I would answer that if we want to understand freedom then we need to understand 12 Years a Slave. If the United States is ever to atone for this national catastrophe it will be done by opening our eyes and remembering the past. Sticking your head in the ground does not provide a way forward. In this second in a series of blogs inspired by the exhibition Tides of Freedom -- in which we explore the notion of freedom through the material culture of the African experience along the Delaware -- we offer that looking at enslavement is a window for understanding freedom.

"The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment which was soon converted to terror. . . ."

These are the words of Olaudah Equiano. Equiano was kidnapped from his home along Africa's Niger River in 1756, and brought to the coast to be loaded onto a slave ship. Only eleven at the time, he would later recount the journey in his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.

Equiano's words offer a glimpse into the lived experience of the Middle Passage. They are witness to the journey of some 50 million Africans who were, from the 1500s to the mid-1800s, forcibly transported out of Africa and enslaved . His words give us a sense of what an enslaved person, being brought to Philadelphia -- an Atlantic trading hub and largest American colonial port--might have experienced.

The ship that Equiano saw when he arrived at the African coast was what many today would call a "tall ship." Often, it was a typical merchant ship, converted below deck to carry kidnapped, enslaved Africans to market. It would anchor just off Africa's sandy western coast; canoeists adept at navigating the crashing waves would transport men, women, teenagers, and children to the waiting ship. As they climbed out of the dugout canoes onto the wide deck, they climbed from home into hell. For the tall ships -- so striking from a distance -- were floating prisons. It is this process of capture that signifies the lost of freedom. Captivity and dehumanizing treatment was a major impediment to the enslaved African's ability to live a productive a fruitful life.

Now imagine that it is you who is thrown into the ship's dark, damp hold. Shackled to the person next to you, you cannot stand. You can barely sit on the rough, plank floor. Rats scuttle across your legs. You're treated like an animal -- whipped to make you obey, and branded with a hot iron to show who "owns" you. You don't know where you are going, or how long it will take, or if you will make it. You don't understand why you are being shouted at, or what is being said.

The days and weeks pass, and the stench, disease, pain, and death become familiar. As Olaudah Equiano recalls, the

"... closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers. This wretched situation was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable, and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable."

Imagine now the shackles, not as museum artifacts -- cleaned and conserved -- but as they were intended and used. Imagine they are fastened around your ankles: the heavy iron weighs you down, making it impossible to do more than shuffle when you have a rare opportunity to take a few steps. Soon, they limit your blood circulation. Your legs begin to feel numb. Reflect on the edges of the metal shackles biting into your skin. Open sores, cuts, and blood, mix with dirt, grime, and feces. It is what Equiano calls "the galling of the chains."

You wear the shackles for a journey that seems to stretch on and on. From the coast of Africa, the slave ship travels to the Americas. On the way to Philadelphia, you may stop and stay in the West Indies to be beaten and "broken."

Finally, your ship sails up the Delaware River, the endpoint in your Middle Passage; finally, the vessel docks. Now you are up on deck. You gulp the fresh air, as pain shoots up your legs from the skin rubbed raw by the shackles, and from weeks of being crowded below in spaces too low to stand.

You are in Philadelphia, and you are about to be sold.

This is how enslavement began for millions of people. Like Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave and millions of others, including Equiano, the bite of enslavement would bring pain and misery. Both Northup and Equiano would find redemption and freedom. Equiano was self-emancipated. He bought his freedom from his Philadelphia Quaker master and was living as a free man when he wrote his The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Likewise Northup was emancipated by his friends and colleagues by the time he wrote 12 Years a Slave. Both men would actively engage in the fight for total emancipation. Looking at a film like 12 Years a Slave, or visiting an exhibition like the Tides of Freedom, helps us understand the true meaning of freedom--lest we forget and not appreciate why freedom is important. Remembering enslavement is an essential window for understanding freedom.

Next installment: "Un-Naming Enslavement"

Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier is an independent curator, exhibition developer, and writer, and principal of REW & Co.

Image of the Slave Shackles, 1700s. Loan courtesy of University Archives, Westport, Connecticut.