A Place to Stand

The editor of Teaching Tolerance reflects on the need to commemorate the toll of slavery.

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, our landscape boasts more than 100,000 monuments honoring the Union and Confederate dead. Thirty-one Civil War battlefields are National Historic Parks. The author of the Emancipation Proclamation gazes out from his resplendent shrine in Washington. These memorials astonish us with the struggle it took to declare that our democracy could no longer abide human bondage.

By contrast, most of the Americans who endured enslavement or perished under its yoke -- estimated at 10,037,000 by demographer Antonio McDaniel at the University of Pennsylvania -- lack even the modest remembrance of a gravestone. The need to commemorate the toll of slavery has been widely recognized, but to no avail. Plans for an African American Museum in the Smithsonian complex have languished for years. Monuments to Black soldiers of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars are too narrowly focused to qualify. And suggestions that the Lincoln Memorial accomplishes the same goal miss the point.

The campaign to designate the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan as a World Heritage Site is a move in the right direction. Falona Heidelberg, of Lift Every Voice, has pointed out that such recognition "will be a step in the process of giving memory to a people who were raised to have amnesia concerning their cultural, spiritual and intellectual heritage."

The burial ground and other African American landmarks provide rich testament to a hidden legacy. But as national memorials to the enslaved they don't suffice. Our accounting for history's ultimate contradiction demands the most hallowed, conspicuous and lasting place we can give it -- on the Mall.

The design possibilities are compelling. Imagine, for example, a structure incorporating bricks made by enslaved labor, gathered from antebellum sites around the country. They would mingle all the colors of our soil, and some would bear the handprints of those who crafted them. Through community efforts nationwide, schoolchildren and their families could participate in selecting, documenting and transporting materials for the project. Consider the awesome potential of the dedication ceremony.

Such a monument could address more than the human suffering and institutionalized evil of American slavery. It could also honor the incalculable contribution of an enslaved work force to the infrastructure and economy of the nation. It could celebrate cultural survival in the face of cultural genocide. It could give everyone who feels slavery's gravity -- regardless of their ability to articulate its implications for their own lives -- a place to stand.

As we prepare to cross a symbolic threshold in history, must the worst of our past be a weight that we lug forward or try futilely to bury? Or can it be a vantage point for looking ahead? Let's consecrate a new stone in Washington, an unyielding tribute that descendants of the enslaved, their fellow Americans and the rest of the world can see and touch and reflect upon for generations to come.

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