Just the other day, I was writing about how jewelry — especially jewelry created by individual designers — can rise to the level of art, with real meaning beyond physical adornment. So thank you to Tony Cooler, who pointed out this remarkable brooch by Phyllis Bowdwin, which was posted by the Smithsonian on Instagram. The work commemorates and mourns 400 years of slavery with an illustration of one of the ships used to transport African people. It’s called “The Middle Passage – African Holocaust, ‘Maafa’,” and you can learn more about it from the Smithsonian’s caption.
View this post on Instagram
Look closer at this brooch to see a diagram of the hull of a ship used to transport Africans, packed in horrifying conditions, during the Middle Passage. There are five cowrie shells—a number that is a symbol of justice. Phyllis Bowdwin created this pin to commemorate 400 years of slavery, and has described her work as a history lesson and a memory of the African American legacy. Inspired by her African background, Bowdwin combines traditional African craft techniques with contemporary influences. She experiments with organic materials such as wood, amber, bone and cowrie shell, combining them with precious metals. "The Middle Passage – African Holocaust, 'Maafa' (terrible thing in Swahili) Brooch," dated 1993 to 1996, is in our @cooperhewitt. #Jamestown400 #ANationsStory
Four hundred years of slavery on American soil was also marked last week by the 1619 Project at the New York Times. The project, led by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, examines the way slavery — and the obsession with race that first justified slavery but then outlived it — has shaped the nation up to and including the present day. The essay about Atlanta traffic jams, for instance, will blow your mind. If you have a New York Times subscription, you can read the whole thing here. The Pulitzer Center is the educational partner for the project, and among the lesson plans and reading guides there’s a link to the PDF of the entire project text, and it’s free! I’ve also heard great things about the accompanying audio series.
The series inspired me to settle down with Skip Gates’s book Stony the Road, which I got at a screening of his documentary Reconstruction: America After the Civil War in the spring. It complements the 1619 Project perfectly, so after you read the 1619 text, I highly recommend watching the documentary, which is only four hours long and available on PBS’s website.
I sure didn’t learn any of this in history class, where I remember the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement being treated as some kind of blip on the radar. I never even heard the word “Redemption” to describe the rollback of civil rights that followed post-war Reconstruction. No wonder people dismiss history lessons as boring and “just a bunch of dates” — dates are what you end up with when you strip all the motivation and meaning and truth from a story. Think of how much more compelling it would have been if we’d been able to dive into the truth instead of dabbling in propaganda!