What African Holocaust?

I recently had the opportunity to travel with a swarm of Honors students down to Washington D.C. to see some memorials, starting at the Vietnam War Memorial and working our way to the Holocaust Museum.

I recently had the opportunity to travel with a swarm of Honors students down to Washington D.C. to see some memorials, starting at the Vietnam War Memorial and working our way to the Holocaust Museum. But things got interesting when students found out that I wasn’t going inside. I am not anti-Semitic. I am not anti-memorial. I am not anti-museum (well, not much). What I am is selfish.

I merely want to exert some control over the images in my head that determine how I interpret human suffering. The carefully orchestrated array of gut-wrenching images, sounds and smells within are designed to make indelible impressions. Given my studies, my focus, and my center, the first powerful images that get imprinted on my brain must be of the African Holocaust.

This alone is reason for me to be selfish about my brain. The U.S. Holocaust Museum is not about memorializing human suffering and institutionalized genocide. It is culturally and historically specific – it is mistitled. It has become an exclusive icon of human suffering, with many unaware that there are other chapters in this unending story of evil. Genocide and ethnic cleansing still continue: 1.7 million people killed in Cambodia and up to 15 million so far in the Congo, before an indifferent United Nations. But we only know of one HOLOCAUST and think that is sufficient. White suffering is made synonymous with human suffering and “Never Again” becomes racialized.

But there was an African Holocaust. The Maafa (Kiswahili for great calamity) denotes hundreds of years of systematic dehumanization, exploitation and genocide of Africans by European (and American) powers – a truly multinational Axis of Evil. Also known as the Middle Passage or the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, it has affected people of all races.

Estimates of the horrifying numbers of kidnapped and enslaved Africans that died packed as human cargo, thrown overboard when deemed financially feasible, range from several million to more than 30 million. But ships’ manifests and faded law books lack the impact of concentration camp photos. This important part of the human story is overshadowed by the marketing of the Jewish Holocaust. Like the students, it leaves us asking, “what African Holocaust?”

There can be no hierarchy of suffering. Any genocide is one too many. But there is a privileging of atrocities that happens in the writing of the historical narrative, what Hayden White refers to as “emplottment.” Not every historical element makes for good story, so historians act as authors and editors, emphasizing certain details, downplaying others. The African story ends up on the editing room floor, since it shows us as the bad guys, not the rescuing heroes.

I waited outside the museum for hours contemplating genocidal differences. In 1444 there were no cameras. Four hundred years later, North America officially abolished international trade in human cargo but not chattel slavery itself. No film crews recorded it. The dawn of the media age certainly helped turn the Jewish Holocaust into the Holocaust. Another difference is that during the slave trade there was no declaration of war against Africa. There were wars and resistance, but the story of the Maafa loses historical significance without a convenient war to point to. It becomes a sidenote, not a chapter.

As an American, the first holocaust museum I see must be one documenting the African Holocaust, the Maafa. Then, and only then, can I rightfully and respectfully see other examples of human atrocity in their own light. Our country has been built on the stolen lives and labor of enslaved Africans. We have been part of the Axis of Evil and will be until we recognize this and deal with it. Problem is, there is no National African Holocaust Museum. Until there is I simply cannot enter the U.S. (Jewish) Holocaust Museum. Only when we examine the full human story can we hope “Never Again.” If that is the goal of this one museum, we need only look to the Congo to see it has obviously failed.

Glenn Reitz can be reached at greitz@temple.edu.

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