The Newport Historical Society has loaned one of its most evocative artifacts to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which just opened in Washington, D.C. A religious spirit bundle, placed by an enslaved individual under the floorboards of his living space in Newport, is now on display on the National Mall.
The African American Museum itself is magnificent. In its comprehensive, no-holds-barred examination of the history of the African American people in America, the museum offers all of us a chance to learn how much this nation was shaped and influenced by people of African descent. In addition, we are given an opportunity to do that most trite, and yet important exercise: to reflect on the human condition, on what makes us who we are, and why we are driven, encouraged, and too often held back from being the kind of human beings we would be proud to be.
In his speech at the opening, President Obama spoke of these things, and also about how we practice and learn from history. He spoke first of the fact that elements of the past have been left out of the historical narratives that we disseminate — and these missing stories, as they are replaced by current scholarship and interpretation, change the way we see our history. A new focus can be better, more illuminating, more useful.
On top of this stone sits a historical marker, weathered by the ages, and that marker reads “General Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay spoke from this slave block during the year 1830”… Consider what this artifact tells us about history, about how it’s told, and about what can be cast aside.
On a stone where day after day, for years, men and women were torn from their spouse or their child, shackled, and bound, and bought, and sold, and bid like cattle… For a long time, the only thing we considered important, the singular thing we once chose to commemorate as history, with a plaque, were the unmemorable speeches of two powerful men. And that block, I think, explains why this museum is so necessary, because that same object reframed, put in context, tells us so much more.
He also suggested that in learning about the past, we develop the tools to deal with present issues and make a potentially better future.
The best history helps us recognize the mistakes that we’ve made, and the dark corners of the human spirit that we need to guard against. And yes, a clear-eyed view of history can make us uncomfortable. It will shake us out of familiar narratives.
But it is precisely because of that discomfort that we learn, and grow, and harness our collective power to make this nation more perfect.
I cannot help but feel pleased to hear a United States President speak about the importance of history to our national conversations today. And I am particularly also pleased to have NHS contributing to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, especially given what they have chosen to display.
The attic of the NHS’ Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House escaped several rounds of restoration activities between the 1920s and today. Floor boards in several areas were undisturbed since the 18th century. Under these boards, close to the house’s massive chimney, were found a number of associated objects that were clearly placed there by a former inhabitant. Several layers of cloth, beads, pins, broken glass, and most diagnostically, a carved African cowrie shell were found. Study revealed that these objects comprised some version of a spirit bundle associated with African religious practices, and were certainly placed under the floorboards by one of the enslaved inhabitants of the house in the 1760s or 70s. While I suspect that many such objects were in use in Newport in the 18th century, finding one is very unusual.
That the NMAAHC chose this object to display, on a multi-year loan, is a source of great pride to the NHS. The bundle demonstrates the effort to both preserve and create culture that enslaved individuals in the Americas continued to make, even in their adversity. This religious tool – meant to protect or to divine – is evidence of a rich spiritual and cultural life which we do not often discuss or interpret. More study may reveal exactly who put it there, and why, and this story too will become part of the Newport history that we can interpret for the public. For now, millions of people from all over the world will see it in Washington, and wonder about the life of the individual who left it for us.
This important piece of American history connects the Newport story to the history of our Nation and the world. NHS is committed to further study of this object, and to making the information available, though our various activities, to all who interact with us – and to those who discover our stories, and Newport’s history, through our relationships with organizations like the NMAAHC and others. We have five centuries of important American history in Newport. Assembling, interpreting, and transmitting that history to the public is the mission of the NHS, and we are doing it in more ways, and in more arenas, than ever before.