‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.’ – Psalms 68:31b (KJV)
In 2016, a team of scholars at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, DC, set a precedent for Western universities by successfully repatriating a rare manuscript to its monastery of origin in the highlands of Ethiopia.
The scholars’ courage to return what was the former crown jewel of the university’s André Tweed Collection, despite the various international and cultural obstacles encountered, exemplifies an equally rare commitment. Before this seminal repatriation, in spite of mounting calls for Europe’s postcolonial empires to reckon with their long history of wrongdoing, there had been little energy behind the return of such significant objects by the Western institutions that hold them.
In the era of Black Lives Matter, a worldwide campaign is emerging to reclaim the encoded heritage of precious artifacts for the ancestral communities from which they come. The return of Tweed MS150, a fifteenth-century Ethiopic codex written in the ancient Ge’ez language, to Debre Libanos Monastery in 2016 – the first time that any Western university formally returned an artifact from its collection to Ethiopia, or to the African continent – marked a watershed in the engagement of Western institutions with cultural repatriation. As the late Professor Getatchew Haile, the scholar of Ethiopic manuscripts, confirmed to me last fall 2020, the codex contains one of the oldest versions of the Acts of Paul in existence today, and what may be the only extant copy of the Acts of Sarabamon – a text describing the life of another Jewish convert to Christianity who suffered martyrdom during the Diocletian persecutions – in the world. This decision to return the stolen antiquity, however, has been far from the norm.
Two years later, in 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that twenty-six looted treasures would be returned to the West African Republic of Benin, suggesting that the tide of European conviction regarding repatriation was shifting. However, after three years France has completed only one restitution, and to Senegal – a nineteenth-century sabre originally owned by the Sufi scholar and Toucouleur political leader Omar Saidou Tall, held until recently at Paris’s Army Museum. In all, 90,000 or so heirlooms from sub-Saharan Africa are held in French museums, and as with UK institutions, the change in thinking by these colonial institutions has been slow. Parliamentary legislation was passed in November 2020, which approved the restitution of certain Benin treasures that remain in Paris. But the French culture minister Roselyne Bachelot resisted a general law to sanction restitution going forward, instead backtracking to claim a sixteenth-century principle guarding the French national collections as the ‘inalienable’ property of the state. Without such a general law, active requests from Ethiopia, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Madagascar received since February 2019 would each require a separate act of parliament to be restituted. These five requests represent the return of around 13,000 objects.
The debate escalated during the annus horribilis of 2020, when major collections in the UK, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands endured siege from protestors decrying the immoral gains of the colonial era. The British Museum, which has 73,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa in its collections, preserves its holdings by forbidding removal of almost all objects, engaging instead in partnerships with African countries to make loans of antiquities and to advise on building of infrastructure in museums and curatorial teams. Campaigners have sharply criticized such paternalism and these calcified legal frameworks, urging the British Museum to give back ostensible ‘blood artifacts’ like the Benin bronzes, which include carved elephant tusks, ivory leopard statues, wooden heads and 900 brass plaques looted from the Kingdom of Benin (present-day Nigeria) during the British massacre and conflagration of Benin City in 1897.
Germany has recently entered discussions to restitute its own collection of Benin bronzes, putting further pressure on UK museums to reconsider the legitimacy of their holdings. When the University of Aberdeen announced in March 2021 that it would repatriate a bust of a former Benin king, demands proliferated for UK regional and university museums as well as the Church of England to follow suit and release the full inventory of Benin bronzes in their possession.
On the heels of a 2020 Dutch government advisory body report came the announcement in 2021 of a €4.5 million project to develop practical guidance for museums on colonial collections. In 2019, the Open Society Foundations, established by the investor and philanthropist George Soros, announced a four-year, $15 million initiative to redress the legacy of colonial violence by helping African nations recover their stolen heirlooms. Germany has earmarked about €1.9 million for research into the provenance of artifacts that were removed from the country’s former colonies in ‘legally or morally unjustifiable’ ways.
The West has lamentably failed to foster adequate public reflection on colonial barbarism, resorting instead to what the human rights attorney Geoffrey Robertson describes as wall labels full of ‘half-truths’ and ‘euphemisms’ – a thin varnish over a violent culture. The hallowing of blood artifacts as museum adornments enshrines an apathetic malaise toward violence in the Western psyche, effectively suturing the wounds without sanitizing them.
This perhaps explains why the press surrounding Howard’s seminal repatriation has been muted. Still, if Ivy League or Oxbridge scholars had done the same, the news would have been splashed across the headlines of multiple international papers. Cambridge University’s late 2019 announcement that it would return a bronze cockerel stolen from Benin City in 1897 is instructive. Though the transfer of the bronze to the current Oba of Benin was authorized in 2020, the lack of a clear plan or timeline for restitution in late 2021 suggests enduring institutional resistance, with public statements serving more to signal virtue than demonstrate commitment to change.
The philosopher Charles Wade Mills calls this Western blindness an ‘epistemology of ignorance,’ while Pankaj Mishra deems it the malign incompetence of elitist liberalism’s ‘bland fanatics.’ It is unsurprising, then, that these symptoms of myopia infect our larger sociocultural reality. In this most recent US election season, cultural sensitivity training and the acknowledgment of crimes against humanity were assaulted by the right as undermining jingoistic narratives of national grandeur.
Those narratives, spun and woven on the soft fibers of the collective (un)consciousness, and bolstered by the damaging history these institutions frequently tell, have become the impenetrable web that forms the unshakeable foundation of Western empire.
In June of last year, just days after the head of the French government’s scientific advisory council declared the Covid-19 pandemic under control, another plague was being challenged by the Congo-born activist Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza. Live-streaming a nonviolent protest against Western – and in particular French – pillaging, savagery and imperialism, Diyabanza calmly removed a carved wooden funerary post, produced by nineteenth century artisans of present-day Chad or Sudan, from its installation at the Quai Branly museum in Paris. Wearing a black beret and black form-fitting kaftan, Diyabanza cradled the artifact in the nook of his arm, maintaining possession for more than thirty continuous minutes, as he and his four associates walked slowly and confidently toward the exit. He elevated his voice only to articulate the purpose of the protest to museum guards and patrons, who by now had formed an audience around the reclamation processional. Encountering a blockade at the exit, Diyabanza patiently maintained a conversational tone when authorities asked him to spell out his first and last names.
In an interview with the New York Times, he recounted his inspiration: a story his mother told him as a teenager in what was then Zaire, of how sometime in the nineteenth century European colonizers seized a sculpted cane, a leopard skin and a bracelet from his great-grandfather, a provincial governor who received the objects from the Congolese king as symbols of power and authority. Julie Djaka, one of the activists charged alongside Diyabanza, said plainly, ‘For you, these are works. For us, these are entities, ritual objects that maintained the order at home . . . that enabled us to do justice.’
In the month following his efforts at the Quai, Diyabanza live-streamed another artifact seizure from the Museum of African, Oceanic and Native American Arts in the French city of Marseille, and that September, he and other activists reclaimed a Congolese funeral statue from the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal, in the Netherlands. Guards stopped him all three times.
These foiled reclamations are a far cry from the now-famous scene in the 2018 blockbuster Black Panther, when Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, forcefully removes a Wakandan axe from its glass display in an unnamed British museum. Killmonger’s approach might be more inspired by the spate of Chinese art heists that took place across Europe in 2010, sparked in Stockholm when a number of objects were stolen from the Chinese Pavilion at the Swedish royal residence. Further heists at the KODE Museum in Norway, the Oriental Museum at Durham University in England, and a museum in Cambridge, all suggested ties back to the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army.
Still, the worry expressed by museum administrators and cultural officials was predictable, mirroring fears voiced by white powerbrokers during the global BLM protests and reflecting inflated concerns that these actions would incite havoc and anarchy within other museums, or the eventual denuding of the institutions’ collections. The comments of then-UK culture secretary Jeremy Wright, in the wake of Macron’s 2018 shock announcement to return twenty-six Benin treasures, reflected the dismissiveness, entitlement and selective application of property rights typical of colonial privilege. ‘Never mind the argument about who owns this thing,’ Wright told the Times of London, ‘. . . there is a huge cultural benefit to the world in having places in the world where people can see these things together.’
Wright’s implicit assumption is that we should trust the UK with faithfully curating the world’s antiquities and narrating the history of Indigenous cultures globally. He ruled out returning objects held in British museums to their countries of origin. The British Museum Act of 1963 legally prohibits the removal of items from the museum to sell, exchange or donate them. It is worth noting, however, that some exceptions to these prohibitions do exist for national collections, including duplicates, damaged items, human tissue and items pillaged by the Nazis. A similar exception could be instituted for the Benin bronzes, considering section five of the Act allows for disposal of objects deemed by the trustees “unfit to be retained in the collections of the museum.” Given prior sales and exchanges of Benin plaques by the British Museum occurred between 1950 and 1972, it seems that when it comes to the dealing of antiquities, British and other Western institutions have a history of interpreting the rules in their own favor.
In June 2020, Christie’s Paris sold two wooden statues made by the Igbo people of Nigeria for almost a quarter-million dollars. Scholars and activists believe the Igbo statues were looted in the late 1960s during the Biafran War, but Christie’s maintains that the sale was legitimate and lawful, naming the deceased French collector Jacques Kerchache as a former owner of the sculptures. Nigeria made the trade in stolen artifacts illegal in 1953 with the passing of its Antiquities Ordinance, setting up an intriguing clash of transnational legal statutes.
Nevertheless, arguments such as those made by the UK culture secretary are endemic: who wouldn’t want to see Benin bronzes as well as Egyptian mummies and Oceanic relics all under the same roof? While convenient for the Western gaze, housing these objects in the same physical building, without the intellectual, artistic and cultural contexts of Benin, Egypt or elsewhere, amounts to little more than British showboating and self-glorification. It is unknown just how much cultural history of profound importance is trapped in these collections, separated as they are from their Indigenous ethno-social contexts and from local populations who maintain the requisite collective memory to unlock latent associations and linkages. Thus, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, the colonized cultures are given meaning only through the colonizer’s largesse and curation, a continuation of empire in the minds of those testifying and witnessing, subtly diminishing the specific social contexts from which these sacred cultural objects originate.
Hakim Chergui, Diyabanza’s attorney, argues that it should not have taken this many decades after the independence of African countries to restore these sacred items. Chergui, who was born in Algeria, cited during the trial the skulls of twenty-four Algerian freedom fighters who were decapitated for resisting French colonial forces in the nineteenth century, and which were long held as war trophies at the Museum of Man in Paris, across from the Eiffel Tower. The skulls were finally returned in July 2020, to be buried just east of Algiers. The ceremony came after almost a decade of lobbying by Algerian historians, researchers and political leaders demanding their return, until Macron agreed in 2018 to the formal repatriation request. Bureaucratic obstacles delayed the return until last year.
One can only hope that similar delays will not be experienced at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, whose Morton Cranial Collection – which holds more than a thousand human skulls from around the world – has announced plans for the repatriation and reburial of a group of skulls unethically collected in the 1830s and 40s from enslaved persons in Cuba and the USA, and which were used as evidence to support white supremacist views.
Solutions may emerge with the technological advancements in digitization and 3D printing. In 2012, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History produced a 3D replica of a previously repatriated sacred Tlingit artifact from southeastern Alaska. Given the British Museum Act entitles the museum to dispose of any object considered a duplicate, a legal argument could be made that a high-fidelity digital or 3D reconstruction would warrant sufficient cause for the return of the original object. Time will tell whether this innovation could offer a mutually beneficial middle way for the repatriation of sacred objects.
Given the long time horizon for repatriation of African artifacts, and the inertia generally characterizing Western responses, Howard University’s return of Tweed MS150 to Ethiopia is all the more staggering – especially with the aging infrastructure and limited endowments often faced by historically Black colleges. In Howard’s case, the impetus and commitment to redress historic injustice were not just ideals to be spoken but essentials that outweighed other considerations. Orders-of-magnitude more resources should be devoted to these efforts by other institutions, not to mention the American and European governments.
These debates about precious artifacts, repatriation and who owns the right to dictate the terms of cultural spaces – and history itself – are not mere academic discourse.
Our cultural narratives have consequences. As the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out, ‘the danger of a single story’ is that it can all the more easily be manipulated and weaponized by political pundits and the autocrats of empire. In the multiplicity of narratives – told from the vantage points of victor and vanquished, rich and poor, proud and meek – we can approach the richness of truth, which Goethe warns us ‘has to be repeated constantly, because error also is being preached all the time, and not just by a few, but by the multitude’. A proverb from the Ewe-mina people of Benin, Ghana and Togo – with variants across the African continent – puts it aptly, ‘Until the lions tell their stories, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’
Consider the case of the European enlightenment. After the invention of the printing press in 1450, there were the New World genocides of Indigenous peoples and the bloody rise of colonization, which led to the rapid seizure, trafficking and enslavement of Africans, who were converted into resources to fuel wars. This led to the ascent of so-called enlightenment science and its attendant technologies for navigation, warfare and industry. The commercial imperatives of war thus became inextricably bound with the shaping of the Eurocentric cognoscenti. In The Silk Roads, Oxford scholar Peter Frankopan puts the distorted history we tell about the European contributions to world culture into focus:
The world changed in the late fifteenth century . . . There was a price for the magnificent cathedrals, the glorious art and the rising standards of living that blossomed from the sixteenth century onwards. It was paid by populations living across the oceans: Europeans were able not only to explore the world but to dominate it. They did so thanks to the relentless advances in military and naval technology that provided an unassailable advantage over the populations they came into contact with. The age of empire and the rise of the west were built on the capacity to inflict violence on a major scale.
As Frankopan goes on to describe, the task before Europe in the fifteenth century was to reinvent the past. The fact that France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal and England had nothing to do with Athens and were largely peripheral to the worlds of the ancient Greeks and Romans ‘was glossed over as artists, writers and architects went to work, borrowing themes, ideas and texts from antiquity to provide a narrative that chose selectively from the past to create a story which over time became not only increasingly plausible but standard’. This was no renaissance; it was revisionism for the sake of empire.
The upshot of this rewriting of history is the strange fruit of a white supremacist fetish for claiming the Greeks and Romans as their ancestors. Societies around the globe are witnessing an acute recrudescence of hate and extremism tied to inadequate schema and inaccurate history. In the US, an assorted rally of neo-Nazis and other hate groups converged in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, home to a major public university founded by Thomas Jefferson. One of the many erroneous views that their signs and chants promoted is that the Greeks emerged somehow independently from their forebears, as a ‘pristine’ white civilization demarcated strictly to continental Europe. Nothing could be further from the truth about ancient Greek civilization, considering the diverse cultures (particularly African, including what we would now call Algerian, Tunisian, Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian) that formed and fueled the intellectual advancements of the Greco-Roman world around the Mediterranean. Several journalistic reviews, some more tongue-in-cheek than others, have quipped that white supremacy’s love for the Greeks and Romans is more a product of the paint peeling from white marble statues than any real historical analysis.
Such violent expressions of far-right white supremacy are not anomalous lapses of vice along the superficially virtuous, glittering landscape of Western ‘progress’. The Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o illuminates in Decolonising the Mind the systemic connection between the discourse of ‘the works of such geniuses of racism’ as Rider Haggard and Nicholas Monsarrat, and that of ‘the giants of western intellectual and political establishment’, including Hume, Hegel and Jefferson. By the same token, it is not overstatement to identify Hitler’s deluded neo-Nazi acolytes as the latest apotheosis of savagery spiraling from the hypocrisy of the West.
Contrary to the prevailing narrative, the steady progress of Christianity in Africa after the withdrawal of the colonial powers – between 1964 and 1984 Christian numbers quadrupled to roughly 240 million – indicates that the rise of faith across the African continent was not strictly due to the unholy alliance between missions and European empire. The late Lamin Sanneh, Gambian theologian and Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School until his passing in 2019, argues in Whose Religion is Christianity? that this proliferation in African evangelicalism has charted a trajectory that shows the striking divergence between Christian Africa and sixteenth and seventeenth century Christian Europe: ‘African Christianity has not been a bitterly fought religion: there have been no ecclesiastical courts condemning unbelievers, heretics and witches to death; no bloody battles of doctrine and polity; no territorial aggrandizement by churches; no jihads against infidels; no fatwas against women; no amputations, lynchings, ostracism, penalties, or public condemnations of doctrinal difference or dissent. The lines of Christian profession have not been etched in the blood of enemies.’
We must ask whether stewardship in our cultural institutions is just about the capacity to procure, store and display objects, or rather if it is also about making visible otherwise obscured histories. The panjandrums of empire promote facile narratives that fall far short of the latter standard. Instead, true stewardship should represent a commitment to making known a balanced rather than blinkered history, reflecting meaningfully on the atrocities perpetrated by the so-called enlightened.
The normalization of Greek Hellenism as the paradigm for Christendom, and the continued dominance of its cultural outlook, which justified slavery, has been re-mixed most perniciously in the American empire, which was built on the exploited labor of enslaved Africans. Consequently, the ‘prosperity gospel’ – a bastardized version of Christ’s teachings which stakes financial success as the ultimate gauge of spirituality – has gripped American churchgoers in the present, even being exported to several African nations. Physical and economic enslavement is thus closely knit, in every age, with recurring spiritual strongholds.
A few centuries ago, expeditions of aristocrats to Italy and southern Europe – first referred to as the Grand Tour in 1670 – presented enticing opportunities to satiate their high-end lust for the jewels of antiquity. Over time, this lust mutated in collusion with Britain’s aspirations. In the early nineteenth century, Thomas Bruce of Elgin removed about half of the surviving sculptures of the Parthenon and transported them by sea to Britain. Facing accusations of looting, Bruce sold the Parthenon marbles to the British government. They were then passed to the British Museum and currently remain on display, despite repeated efforts by Greece and UNESCO to restore the complete frieze in Athens. Almost inexorably, the virus of empire tends to cannibalize its idealized image of itself, as reflected in the objects of its worship, stealing culture to vainly fill the void within. As Britain did to ancient Greek ruins, or Japan has done to Chinese relics, so America does to Native sacred sites, Mexico, Hawai’i, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and the peripheral outposts of its empire.
It is an even grander irony, then, that the actual descendants of Greece and Rome, championed by present-day white supremacists as heirs of a fabulous (but farcical) Aryan civilization extending back to antiquity, were denigrated as race-polluters in the twentieth century by xenophobic Americans who shared the very same supremacist ideology. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson captures this quiddity of white supremacy’s relationship to individuals of southern and eastern European ancestry in her 2020 tour-de-force Caste, citing how Greek, Italian and other immigrants were not afforded the privileges of whiteness and so were denied voting privileges and even, at times, lynched. The Anglo-American elite and its power base have thus made it clear that some parts of Europe are really not Western (or white) enough. The West, Wilkerson reminds us, has been fond throughout its history of using a combination of Greek mythology, poor interpretation of divine will and fear of cultural ‘pollution’ to forge racist and oppressive laws.
The quest to return Tweed MS150 has thus revealed a paradox about the righting of historic wrongs: no one is culpable, and yet all are complicit. No blame can be assigned to those who receive trafficked or looted goods without their knowledge. But the turning of the gaze away from past injustice, motivated by the pressing demands and profit calculus of the present, ossifies the structures of complicity for all – whether in the paying of taxes or the patronage of archival collections. Certainly, some individuals and institutions benefit more than others from this blindness. Yet, like with any discussion of present-day atonement for the sins of a previous era, we fall prey too easily to the argument that we are not in any way responsible. The past remains with us.
Jean-Paul Sartre, in his 1961 preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, describes the contradictions of Western humanism and the conspiratorial solidarity of metropolitan elites with their colonial agents – ‘a mob of agitators, provocateurs, and spies abroad whom it disowns once they are caught’ – essentially, the military-industrial complex enriching the cathedrals, palaces, universities and museums of Europe and the US. Even as Fanon makes the Westerner experience ‘a revolutionary feeling’ of shame, he reveals its texture: There is a revolutionary shame that leads to changing one’s colonizing behavior and mentality, but there is also a shame that is simply pride refashioned, one that is patently angry for having been found out and revealed for what it is. Too cowardly to change, in the words of Fanon, instead ‘the colonist forgot strangely enough that he was getting rich on the agony of the slave.’ Fanon’s clarion call to the Westerner, of any color or creed, is to ‘be involved in the struggle for the sake of the common salvation . . . dirtying our hands in the quagmire of our soil and the terrifying void of our minds’. He wanted to demolish the false Manichaean worldview that defined the last and dispossessed in a colonized society only by the virtues of the first.
Almost liturgical at times, Fanon urges the West to have the courage to choose the transformative power of shame – some might call it repentance – to revolutionize the human condition, though he was clear that few would make that choice unless forcibly coerced. Though the dominant castes of society certainly benefit more than the subordinated, we are each contributors to corrupted sociological systems that long predated our births. If we accept complicity, then we risk the possibility of personal loss and personalized sacrifice – the contoured weight of one’s individual cross to bear – but in that alchemical and alienated suffering lie the seeds of true spirituality. To enter that liminal space of radical submission, one must make the movement from revolutionary shame to forfeiture for shame’s sake, where the sacrifice is no longer as salient as the joy emanating from the debt’s fulfillment.
It is a message that professed Christian politicians lobbying to whitewash American history would be especially wise to heed, though I would sooner wait for Godot than expect them to change. To Western apologists who consider Fanon too severe, too harsh or too damning, I offer the words spoken at the 1546 eulogy of Martin Luther, quoting Erasmus: ‘Because of the magnitude of the disorders, God gave this age a violent physician.’ In other words, the West must make penance for colonial sins, and for the resulting carnage that has infiltrated the architectures of the Western mind and its myriad phantasmagoria of cruelty. White culture’s desensitization of its children to racist violence has enabled the young to perpetuate it themselves, a cycle repeated over many generations. Words usually misattributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, speaking of the Third Reich, may capture the diagnosis all the same: ‘Silence in the face of evil is itself evil . . . Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.’ Or as Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, echoed a century earlier, that a delusion ‘never stops by itself; it only leads on into greater and greater delusion so that it becomes more and more difficult to find one’s way back to the truth.’ In sum, the severity of Western delusions must be matched by the ardor and zeal with which we hold fast to truth.
The repositories of culture in the West together shape a narrative that families of today – fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters, sons, daughters – take part in and absorb, shaping knowledge, thought and practice. Just as in the days of public lynchings, when the unholy sacrifice, humiliation and incineration of other human beings culminated in communal breathing of those noxious fumes, the collective (un)consciousness of white families has fused into a singular intent. The innocence Americans maintain now in the face of mass suffering and death – as revealed by the more recent tragedies of Andrew Brown Jr., Daunte Wright, Walter Wallace Jr., Jacob Blake, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Devonte Hart, Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Clementa Pinckney and the other Emanuel Nine victims, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Tanisha Anderson, Aura Rosser, Michelle Cusseaux, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and others, and others, and others; by the thousands of immigrant families detained, separated and expelled at the Mexican border; by Asian American communities devastated by the resurgent wave of violence against vulnerable workers; and by the Indigenous peoples left to mourn the first American genocide that devastated their ancestors – is a product of this demonic organism, this one depraved mind, and it must be challenged in order to be reshaped. The anodynes offered to the empire’s muscle – to Chauvinistic police officers and to ICE agents who reap the bitter fruit of their psychological warping – cannot cure.
Returning rare artifacts is but one prong of assault, admittedly on the margins of the larger discussion about reparative or restorative justice. However, the transition from one order of life to another is not always accomplished by degrees, like sand running through an hourglass grain by grain, but it is rather like water pouring into a jug floating on a stream. There are moments, years, decades and even centuries when water seems to enter only gradually, but eventually, as the jug of oppression grows heavier and the weight of truth becomes undeniable, it suddenly sinks rapidly and takes in all the water it can hold. With global protests in support of BLM and in the wake of George Floyd’s death having gripped the attention of government leaders and corporate executives, we have witnessed renewed calls for the toppling of monuments to racist, genocidal and colonial figures: from Christopher Columbus to Cecil Rhodes, King Leopold of Belgium, John C. Calhoun and Winston Churchill, as well as the renaming of army bases across the American South named after Confederate stalwarts. The jug may have already reached its tipping point. The protestors, at least, have spoken: the cultural memories we have enshrined must be revised, and re-remembered, in order for redemption to take hold.
Like Narcissus, son of an ancient Greek river god, the West is caught in an illusion of its own superiority, overestimating its virtues while denigrating those who dare to assert a contrarian vision for global politics. To avoid feelings of irrelevance or insignificance, Western narcissism projects onto artifacts, monuments, institutions and leaders their self-inflated notions and insecurities to maintain the illusion of primacy.
These same individuals of the white majority might legitimately question if it is appropriate to expose young children, in museums no less, to the horrors perpetrated by presumed national heroes. The alternative, however, is to reinforce the untenable fictions that the people who committed these cruelties, and the nations that produced them, were unequivocally worthy of our admiration and praise. Such an approach has ill-served us for far too long, creating generations of Westerners lacking the tools to critique white supremacy.
The challenges of such an exercise in truth-telling should foster sympathy from white people to the burdens faced by the parents of Black children, who must necessarily prepare the next generation for the realities of racism – or risk the harsher lessons taught by a world that vilifies them. Black parents must do this while nurturing for their children some semblance of innocence, a modicum of unconstrained possibility, for as long as possible. The late Toni Morrison has captured this precarity in the immortal genius of the heroine Sethe:
Whatever is going on outside my door ain’t for me. The world is in this room. This here’s all there is and all there needs to be . . . She didn’t want any more news about whitefolks . . . about the world done up the way whitefolks loved it. All news of them should have stopped with the birds in her hair.
This is exactly what museum culture in the West has nurtured – ‘the world done up the way whitefolks loved it’ – a curated and often sterile depiction of how non-white societies behave, live and create. Artificial separation of culture from its originating context has created a pathogenic and contagious simulacrum of history, which spreads a mirage among the people that does not reflect reality. The hoarding of cultural artifacts globally is indicative of this trend.
Amid a sea of opaque whiteness, highlighted by the attempted terrorist coup that stormed the US Capitol in January 2021, a museum to honor and revitalize the community that produced the Benin bronzes is being designed and planned in Benin City by architect David Adjaye and associates. They intend the Edo Museum of West African Art to be organized around the community’s daily rituals and practices. ‘It has to be for the community first,’ he said to the New York Times, ‘and an international site second.’ In collaboration with the British Museum and Nigerian authorities, Adjaye has announced a $4 million archaeological excavation for the site centering on the old walls, which are buried underground and form concentric circles larger than the Great Wall of China. The building will be a re-enactment of the palatial turrets and pavilions of precolonial Benin City, and the bronzes are scheduled to be loaned for display after the museum’s notional opening in 2025.
Adjaye is no dilettante in the art of historical recovery; he was the lead designer behind the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, DC, just a few miles from Howard’s main campus. The museum’s form emphasizes its function: situated prominently on the National Mall, with a corona inspired by the three-tiered Yoruba crowns of Nigeria, the bronzed ornamental encasement pays homage to the intricate ironwork forged by enslaved African Americans throughout the Deep South. A tour of the NMAAHC takes the visitor on a moving journey from the agonies of the transatlantic passage and American slavery to the heights of Black achievement, motivating efforts toward national healing and uplift.
Such settings are models of stewardship, not just for holding objects, but for advancing redemption, restoration and faithful remembering. And for other holding institutions, a part of this forward-looking stewardship must include the return of sacred manuscripts and artifacts to their communities of origin – a move that would do a great deal to advance these noble goals across the former colonies of the West, converting blood artifacts into memorials of reconciliation. New technologies may equip both colonial and postcolonial societies alike to uncover and recover lost histories, creating potential opportunities to discover our shared humanity. Our communities can, in the spirit of the Howard University scholars who repatriated Tweed MS150, craft a new spectrum of narratives.
It has been said that Western domination of Africa, Asia and the Americas was made possible by centuries of practice in building impregnable fortresses. Perhaps inevitably, these empires have failed to recall, in the incisive words of poet Aimé Césaire, that ‘a civilization that withdraws into itself atrophies’, since, after all, ‘for civilizations, exchange is oxygen.’ The fortress builders, intent only on acquisitiveness and self-protection, have barricaded themselves against external assault but have unwittingly cocooned themselves, closed and sealed off, fearful of an enemy that no weapon or wall could possibly defeat.
Image © The André Tweed Collection