The Legacy Museum begins in the seasick-all of nowhere land, the Atlantic Ocean. Atlas (the World Carrier). It begins with a seemingly endless place without land — water, a symbol — immense. In the hull of a slave ship, what could a person know and what would a person remember of this water-cemetery? The room with a smoky image, a hologram? of a person emerging from the dark back of time, the dark back of a cell. The cells I stood in front of would foreshadow our present form of systematic structural racism, the widespread incarceration of black and brown people.
The first of larger small rooms opened up to a bench for sitting and a woman singing, two such rooms of women singing — what is the word for sublime beauty and aching trauma? The beginning of American music.
There are so many visible women in this retelling of American history that I am heartened, my heart recognizes my heart, my chest is filling up with the swell of an ocean. I want to take it all in. I want to take in as many of these souls as I can. I cannot walk on by. I don’t want to walk on by. I will be late for the bus.
One man cried at the ocean’s overwhelming churn. In nearly every room, light hits wet eyes, and the darkness around us, the black painted walls, the multiple voices, telling and telling and telling had me constantly ungrounded and grounded, asking, where do I look first? And never being without substantial history to take to heart. Every corner has something to show me – every corner, every wall, every round kiosk, every video, every photograph, every wave of individual history was all around me,and I would be soaked in it. The history of my country had never made me feel so much.
The museum engaged all my senses – sometimes I was thirsty for the resistors, the heroes: They were on the walls, names with portraits. At the end of the walk through history, I entered a traditional art museum space, white walls with framed art. I am in a new world here. I feel different having considered so much real history. A real but new world where the beauty of blackness is celebrated. I feel a sense of “museum justice” – Wiley‘s painting of the young black man– the portrait of Harriet Tubman – so much to sit with –
What came before, though, is a contemporary terror, a nearly unbearable reality, except for having understood the previous unbearable terror. I chose to listen. I wanted to listen to the stories of the men and women in prison. I picked up the phone. I wanted to bear witness. Here, I did not note their names — had they said their names? They were nameless to me, except for the encounter of their tender and hurt selves, their brave and clear eyes, their humanity. How can you be locked up? How is this possible?
The video documentary, short and harrowing, of Saint Clair Prison in Alabama. Three men who survived stints at that hellscape. They got out but no one should be in there. Where is the moral order? Hell is a cell where no one can hear the yelling. Where children sit and wait for their mothers who cannot get to them. Again, the museum makes clear these imprisoned children are like the children at the beginning of this journey. The children cannot see the whole place. Is this a mercy to be unaware of the enormity of the hateful system? No.
I know a black elder who took the exit out at this moment, at the “enslavement to incarceration” hall. I saw a white older woman crying. She was pleading with the docent to allow her to take one picture, one, only one, she said, one, only one. I wondered why? Did she recognize someone in the lynching mob? Did she want to use her phone as a witness, to show someone on the outside? Did she want to “not forget” what she saw? A camera can block or veil the image from the viewer’s emotional heart. Was she begging for a tech answer to the intensity. Remembering forever is the definition of really learning a value. In front of the photo of the mother and son lynched hanging off a bridge, I heard a black woman gasp.
I saw a young black woman crying in a room about Saint Clair Prison. I wanted to offer my hand to her. I was crying, too. Of course, I had been crying since the ocean. I turned my hands upward so the palms could receive hers, in case she was so moved. I heard another woman say, “oh my God” at a newspaper clipping of an upcoming lynching.
A wave of disgust came over me for Alabama and Mississippi and the South. I’m sorry for my immature reaction. I know this violence is going on now in Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania in the North . It’s going on now, with my silent complicity.
I knew a man who worked at the Pittsburgh Penitentiary as a psychologist. He became the head of both the sexual offender counseling program AND the drug and alcohol program at the Pen. He was only 27. No one older wanted the job. He told me that some of his clients/the inmates were victims of the most horrific sexual violence he had ever heard. He told me that most of them had deep mental illnesses. He told me that after his workday, he had to sit in his truck for a half hour before his hands and legs stopped shaking enough so that he could drive home. He worked at the penitentiary for three years after which his own drug and alcohol addiction got so crippling and his reactive violence, so dangerous, his self harm, and his external harm, that it all contributed to his eventual imprisonment for several DUIs. He was arrested and jailed and served six months in the system that was his old employer.
I am not saying this for self serving reasons. I am not special. 50% of Americans know someone who has been in prison. Thank God for the artists that bring back the newly nearly forgotten. Thank God for the love, and driven foresight, the courage of Michelle Browder. Browder sculpted the Three Mothers of Gynecology and righted a part of history, as The Legacy Museum had done.