Toni Morrison invites you to take a seat

200906_27b_Sullivans Island benchYou’ve heard of Ellis Island in New York, right? The first place some 12 million immigrants from Europe arrived on US soil. There’s another important entry port not quite so celebratory. Does Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina ring a bell? This residential barrier island 10 miles southeast of downtown Charleston is where an estimated around 200,000 to 360,000 slaves from Africa were first brought before being sold.  Nearly half of all living African Americans are said to have ancestors who passed through Sullivan’s Island.

The bench on the grounds of the park at Fort Moultrie

The bench at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island is a somber reminder of slavery

Wessel discovered information about the slave memorial while plotting out a bicycle ride we were doing from Charleston last week. As an aside during a tour of Fort Sumter the day before, a park guide said there was a new slavery monument on Sullivan Island. (Turns out there’s not really a monument.) That got Wessel to thinking about this story he’d read in The New York Times last July, about when writer extraordinaire Toni Morrison came to christen a bench the Toni Morrison Society had installed to memorialize the spot where slaves were first brought.

The bench was inaugurated in July 2008

The bench was inaugurated in July 2008

All we knew was that the bench was maintained by the National Park Service, so we cycled to Fort Moultrie on the southwestern tip of the island to see if it was there. There were no signs, but luckily the visitor center was open for another five minutes and a ranger told us to walk toward the water. Indeed, there it was, Toni Morrison’s metal bench.

Writer and Nobel winner Toni Morrison (photo Wikipedia Commons)

Writer and Nobel winner Toni Morrison (photo Wikipedia Commons)

The bench was inspired by something the Nobel prize winner said during an interview in 1989 (this quote is taken from the plaque near the bench, but not verified): “There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road.”

Diane contemplates the meaning of the bench

Sitting on the bench, Diane can't help but contemplate what once took place here

Reading that gives me chills. Sitting on the bench did, too, thinking about the thousands of people kidnapped from their homes, treated like animals, brought to a foreign land, and then sold to do hard labor. Wessel and I sat there, soaking in the enormity of it all. I can only hope that if I had lived during slavery, I would have been an abolitionist.

View across the marsh from the bench

From the bench you see Charleston Harbor

So now I must rail a bit. It embarrasses me that my country doesn’t have one national museum or monument about slavery.  (I’ll mention here that Fort Moultrie recently opened a terrific permanent exhibit called “African Passages” to examine Sullivan’s Island slave trade.) To set the record straight, as a Southerner, slavery was not confined to the South. In fact, Rhode Island merchants controlled the majority of the American slave trade. Slavery certainly wasn’t confined to my homeland, either. It’s estimated that “only” 5 to 10 percent of the as many as 15 million Africans taken to the Americas and the Caribbean were brought to the US. But still.

Entrance of Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, SC

The Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston

To Charleston’s credit, it has a museum dedicated to slavery, the Old Slave Mart Museum and is working on another. Meanwhile, other national projects are in the works, including, finally, a Smithsonian Museum in the works, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (The architect is from here in Durham!)

But we Americans also need a national museum dedicated solely to slavery, as well as many more “benches by the road.”

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4 Responses to “Toni Morrison invites you to take a seat”

  1. karel Says:

    It’s a good thing to memorize the victimes of the arrogance of the white race. This approach is rather new. I remember, when I was a young boy, our teacher told us that it was the punishment of God to the descendants of Cham, the youngest son of Noah (ref. The bible-story of Genesis 9:24-27). But now I’m happy to be convinced that not everything written in the Bible can be used to turn crime into justice.
    So, memorize the victimes is a good thing but it must get a follow-up by giving a fair chance to the descendants of those slaves to develop their capabilities and accept them as equivalent citizens. And, in a way, pres. Obama is a good exemple to show which way this road can lead to.

  2. didaniel Says:

    Nicely said, Karel!

  3. Wessel Says:

    There’s another Toni Morrison bench in Oberlin, Ohio. It was unveiled on April 23, 2009

    See
    http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2009/04/author_toni_morrison_helps_unv.html
    http://ontheroad.randmcnally.com/2009/08/03/travelogue-oberlin-bench/

  4. Wessel Says:

    I just came across this informative story on Sullivan’s Island slave trade

    http://www.nationalparkstraveler.com/2009/03/sullivan-s-island-african-american-ellis-island

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