Big Questions, Little Questions

When should a museum turn a visitor’s attention inward?

This month, I took a trip to the Brooklyn Historical Society’s exhibit “In Pursuit of Freedom” on the abolitionist movement in Brooklyn. You might not think about Brooklyn and slavery, unless you are a historian, but as novelist Teju Cole writes, “This is a secret only because no one wants to know about it.” In the late 18th century, sixty percent of white Brooklynites—mostly men of Dutch and English descent – were slave owners. Slavery, it turns out, influenced everything about Brooklyn from its industrialization (sugar, tobacco, cotton) to the early racial makeup of its neighborhoods.

In the main exhibit room, I stood first before a display on the importance of literacy to black activists. I read a quote from black preacher and abolitionist John Jea, who was kidnapped from Nigeria at the age of two and sold into slavery: “I wondered to myself whether I could read or not,” Jea writes, “but the spirit of the Lord convinced me that I could.” On a screen above me floated the question meant to drag such a sentiment out of the past and back into the air-conditioned gallery: “Is Education Important to Your Own Sense of Freedom?”

Frontispiece of John Jea’s autobiography.

Now that I work for a museum, I can’t become a visitor myself without asking: what are the questions that allow people to dig into unfamiliar material, to lose themselves in it? Faced with the museum’s prompt, I found myself resistant. With Jea’s words ringing in my ears – “the Lord convinced me” – “I wondered to myself whether…” I mentally listed the many other questions I might ask first about Jea’s testimony: what kind of activity, what hours of effort, ghosted behind his “wondering to himself whether” he could read? In what manner or form did “the spirit of the Lord” convince him he could? What struggle did he keep behind closed doors even as he advertised the power of literacy to others? Depending on what records Jea left behind, these might be questions without clear answers. “Is education important…?” however, begged me to answer yes, of course – if only because I had never not had an education, nor had I ever not been free.

You cannot live in New York – or in any other rapidly changing city – without thinking about what parts of a story are hidden from you versus what is before your eyes. A stylish pedestrian walkway lined with chalk art and fancy popsicles hides a formerly derelict elevated train line. I search in vain for the building that might have been my immigrant great-grandparents’ grocery store on the Lower East Side. I cross the street in Crown Heights in the twenty-three-year old footsteps of rioters, but also in the one-hundred-thirty-year old footsteps of the residents of Weeksville, a village founded by free blacks. At the outdoor 4th-9th Street stop between Park Slope and Red Hook, the highest subway station above ground level in the world, I hear parents talking to their children about the view from the window. They usually focus on what the child can see: the huge Kentile Floors sign on scaffolding, the bits of industry, what’s there in the frame. It’s the same for a painting, or the page of a book. The reflection that grows out of this kind of looking returns easily to the self: “Has that ever happened to you?”


But what isn’t there complicates matters, particularly in a city where one landmark is constantly crushed by another. Across the gallery from John Jea was a wall of New York pastoral landscapes: grand agricultural estates, a placid view of New York Bay. Wealthy landowners drive by in carriages or look out at the water. Occasionally, a worker is seen trimming a tree, but for the most part, African Americans are absent from these landscapes. The BHS occasionally framed one of these pictures with a white bracket, “to underscore [that] what you don’t see might be more important than what you see.” This idea—that everywhere I looked in this history, I might be looking at reconstructed erasures–propelled me. It reminded me of those side-by-side drawings in Highlights magazine, nearly identical but for some missing images in one. And indeed, some images were missing. One writer of the era describes Brooklyn’s population: “The inhabitants are, exclusively, descendants from the original Dutch settlers, the rest are a casual collection from all quarters.” In the late 18th century, one in three residents of King’s County was a slave.

But later in the exhibit, the curators stopped presenting the viewer with absences to populate. The prompt to dig for the invisible fell away. Why? Maybe because this was not a guided tour, and navigating absence requires conversation – to populate a censored or erased space means talking it back into existence, and it’s hard for a museum visitor to do this on her own, no matter how generative or detailed the exhibit’s artifacts or questions.

Nevertheless, I filled my brain and deflated plenty of heroes before I left the gallery: Walt Whitman, as editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, frequently wrote racist op-eds, and while he was against slavery’s expansion, he never took a stand against the institution. As Brooklyn began to industrialize, its waterfront became so replete with warehouses that it became known as the “walled city” a name that suggests protection from the rest of the country’s turmoil. But it was not so walled as it thought: the strengthening abolitionist movement would target the city’s economic gain from goods processed by unfree labor. (Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety, Or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” which opened last month in the old Domino Sugar factory, pays homage to the slaves who built that industry.)

Were other viewers turned off or inspired by the questions that took them out of the gallery and back into their psyches? A final question in the guest book gave me some insight. “How do you define freedom?” was the question on every page, with space for the answers. Teachers know that a “how do you define?” question, while seeming to be an open-ended call to hear many voices, can sometimes be a futile exercise, an invitation to solipsism. And indeed, several adults or near-adults had written variations on “freedom is the ability to do anything I want without consequences.” One person wrote simply “freedom from fracking.”

Only little children, who had written their own labored responses or dictated them to parents, and whose ages were sometimes written next to their names, seemed to conceive of freedom as an alternative to a truly fettered existence. (We were in Brooklyn Heights, after all, an affluent part of the city where children are statistically likely to be over-scheduled every waking minute.) Claudia, age 7, wrote that “Freedom is being free and having a good feeling inside and out in fields running for miles…” Perhaps prompted by an adult, she added “and freedom is being equal.” (For comprehension reasons, I have not preserved Claudia’s spelling.) Another child seemed to agree with Claudia, and perhaps with the first residents of Weeksville, on the more basic, inalienable aspects of freedom. “I would run away and yell help! and drink water! and as fast as I can,” he wrote. This child seemed to respond to a different, hypothetical question, which someone might have asked him aloud or which he’d extrapolated from the written one. I shuddered as I realized it could as easily be “What would you do if you were a slave?” as “what would you do if you were free?” Did the child hear this question from an interpreter or a parent? Or after seeing the exhibit, did he think of it himself, struck by the differences between what he saw and what he already knew of the value placed on his own small life? I think again of Jea’s testimony: “I wondered to myself if I could read…” How and what can we possibly learn without that wondering, which sometimes emerges from nowhere?

But that nowhere, John Jea might remind us, is also a lonely place. In Teju Cole’s new novel, Every Day is For the Thief, the Nigerian-born protagonist visits the National Museum in Lagos on a trip home from New York. He finds the displays lacking, the most important artifacts plundered or given to other countries. The exhibition cards are old and inaccurate and the story of the country’s history riddled with troublesome holes. He is alone in the museum. The staff harasses him; the woman at the ticket-counter is asleep. The questions that hang in the air, asking him what to make of absence, are only his own.

Featured image courtesy of the Brooklyn Historical Society.

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