a heavy museum; a heavy seal
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
Content warning: discussion of genocide and racial violence
Last week, while visiting Milwaukee, I spotted the American Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) on the map. The name immediately caught my eye.
The word holocaust is overwhelmingly affiliated with Hitler’s genocidal campaign to eliminate Jews from Europe. Genocide, on the other hand, is used in a whole array of contexts.
Most recently, genocide has appeared alongside news of horrific killings in Ukraine. Last week, I got into a lengthy conversation with some folks about what is and is not genocide, because of this recent usage. We agreed that genocide is violence with the intention to eliminate a people, based on an identity or geography. While the violence in Ukraine is horrific, it doesn’t quite seem like genocide.
Why bother with this discussion? Murder is atrocious, especially when committed by states. But: it’s crucial to recognize systematic efforts to eliminate whole peoples, because these violent campaigns implicate specific systems as the problem, and can identify concrete means of redress.
Also, as has come up many times here before, the way that we use language, and the choices we make when we communicate about events or feelings, holds weight.
So, back to this museum. James Cameron, who founded ABHM, narrowly escaped being killed in a lynching. This traumatic event marked his life; he became a civil rights organizer and historian. As an adult, he
“visited the Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem in 1979. He admired the Jewish insistence on the preventive importance of keeping the memory of mass atrocity alive in the world’s conscience. He also saw many similarities between the Jews’ terrible suffering and that of African Americans during enslavement and the Jim Crow era that followed.”
[There is, of course, much to be said about the horrific irony of Jews remembering atrocities while committing atrocities against the Palestinian people, which I will not go into deeply here, but would like to acknowledge.]
After the visit, Cameron established ABHM in a number of forms; in a brick-and-mortar museum in Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood, and now online.
There, you’ll find discussion of what the Black Holocaust is, more about Cameron’s story, and virtual versions of the exhibits on view at the museum. It’s heavy history, but presented, true to Cameron’s theory of change, as a continuous story.
One of the things I appreciated most about the museum is that it starts in Africa, with the rich cultures and settlements that thrived before the arrival of Europeans. Unlike many Americans, I learned about the racist history of this country as a kid, but didn’t get to extend that knowledge beyond the bounds of enslavement. I also recently read the children’s book version of the 1619 Project, which similarly starts this storytelling in Africa. I encourage you to spend some time with these resources as well.
In an era of criminalizing truth about identity and the history of white supremacy, it’s ever-more important to seek out and support resources that preserve this information.
I’ll end with this article about a contractor who’s been hired to dismantle monuments to the US’s white supremacist past, and an incredibly cute seal.