One of the most indelible images of my time in Senegal was found on Ile Gorée, the UNESCO heritage site which captures the origins of the slave trade.
In the midst of the beautiful, Oceanside island lies a rectangular cinder block building whose nondescript appearance as architectural proof of the banality of evil. For it was in this building where slave traders and their damnable local enablers held the men and women who had been kidnapped to be sold into slavery. As you walk past the shackles on the wall you will walk down a narrow corridor which opens right into the ocean. It was at this door where slave ships docked and their human cargo was loaded. The terrifying part of that passage, even to those visiting today in complete safety, would be the last thing the captives would have seen --the ocean carrying on infinitely, yielding no destination, no landmark, no certainty but a voyage into the unimaginable.
To the credit of the people of Charleston, South Carolina, the end of that voyage can also be seen today. There are good people who preserve the darkest parts of history so that we can be reminded today of how fragile democracy and human rights can be, and so perpetrators must live with the mark of history's judgement upon them.
Yet the most powerful part of this chapter was not the cobblestone streets or preserved slave markets which reflect the sad stories. It was the hopeful story that is told inside a plain office in a former bank on Charleston's King Street. It is a story that is still unfolding today. It is the story of the Gullah Geechee Nation, shared with us by one of its most determined authors.
The Gullah Geechee Nation runs up and down the coast of four southern states, from South Carolina to the northern part of Florida. It links the communities where the diaspora of African-Americans taken from West Africa took root after emancipation, recognizing the unique culture and traditions that grew among these families.
Over time, this story went from a quiet existence, felt but unrecognized, to full recognition in an Act of Congress which recognized the Gullah Geechee nation and established a corporation with a board dedicated to curating the history and culture of its people.
Now, there are some economic benefits to this idea of creating a symbolic territory of shared history. The businesses up and down the corridor benefit from the context, as businesses offering traditional Gullah food and crafts can find tines who want to consciously immerse themselves in the culture. The linked signage allows for promotion of a unique drive and small communities which benefit from providing a reason for the cars to stop. (Let me tell you now that Miss Charlotte's Gullah Rice and Fried Chicken is worth a trip).
There are bureaucratic advantages as well. The creation of a standing corporation provides a space where academics, businesses, artists and citizens can meet to share, tell and promote stories. Creating the space within the administrative world matters as well. When state highway departments began adding lanes they were able to work with the GGN to avoid ending the many traditional sweet grass basket sellers along the highway. And the GGN provides a portal for state governments to co-ordinate approaches.
Beyond policy ramifications though, there was a simple eloquence to the determined people who had begun tracing their stories and wound up inspiring an Act of Congress. Testimony from Gullah descendants who began to understand their history beyond the tale of slavery but as the story of a culture able to survive, the words of people who understood their grandparents speech pattern as historical rather than deficient, these matter as well.
It would not be hard for a New Brunswick government to adopt enabling legislation to give groups a path to non-profit corporations who could promote areas of cultural and historical importance. Given our academic and cultural sectors, there is potential here (this could have been a direction for the Capital Commission has government cuts not ended the experiment). It would not be much harder to place the issue on the agenda of Atlantic premiers' meetings to co-ordinate approaches. Is there potential here for New Brunswick? I'd love to hear others' thoughts.