The New Ethnogenesis

My Visit to the International African American Museum

I wasn’t sure what to wear. Charleston had been under sweltering heat. The humidity near unbearable. But I wasn’t sure how formal my visit to the newly opened International African American Museum would be. Would shorts be considered rude? Should I put on my Sunday best? The temperature is rising in our bedroom where I am changing. It is not yet 10:00 AM and I can feel sweat forming on my brow.

Opened to so much fanfare over the weekend, with an exclusive crowd including celebrities and politicians, the International African American Museum (IAAM) suffered a long pregnancy. The opening had been delayed for two years for various reasons. To go along with construction issues there has been internal strife amongst the staff. In December 2021, Bernice Chu — the former director of planning and operations — sent a memorandum contending the organization was becoming racist and misogynistic. Former Mayor of Charleston Joe Riley, who first proposed the museum, stepped back from his duties at the museum in April 2022. It was slated to open a week after MLK Day 2023. However, in December 2022, the museum announced another delay due to a building issue: humidity and temperature controls were not operating properly. Perhaps, they concluded, they would open within the first six months of the new year, 2023.

Yet here we are, a little over a week after Juneteenth, and the IAAM has been open for two days to the public thus far.

The museum is about a mile from where we live. Up on the Cooper River, it is a twenty-minute walk from our apartment in Harleston Village. No long trek. I want to leave early enough so I can walk at a slow pace on a scenic route, as I am in Charleston and there is always plenty to enjoy.

I go down Queen Street. Horse-drawn carriage rides wheel by, creaking under the weight of a dozen passengers. Holding the lead line of one is an old housemate, an awkward man. We do not look at each other, not wanting to meet again in any way.

When you cross Meeting Street, Saint Michael’s and the old Federal Courthouse come to view on the right. Once used to gauge distances for Union artillery from Morris Island, Saint Michael’s now brings droves of tourists to capture the image of The Four Corners of Law — those laws being federal, state, city, and God. I can hear from Washington Square to the south the sound of bagpipes. They are part of the parade that will march to the Battery as part of the annual tradition marking Carolina Day.

On June 28th, 1776, days before they signed the Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Sullivan’s Island was fought. Where celebrities now reside — the likes of Bill Murray, Danny McBride, and, rumored, Taylor Swift — a small palmetto-log fort once stood against a combined naval and land force of the British crown marching and sailing toward the strategic port of Charles Town. To take the city, the force would need to silence this nuisance at the mouth of the harbor. Commanding the patriot garrison was William Moultrie, whose name is now known best as an ideal parking spot before walking to the beach. It is said the British could not topple the walls, watching helplessly as their cannon fire was deflected by the stalwart palmetto. To further the humiliation, the patriots scampered outside the walls to collect the projectiles once hurled at them with so much hate to return them land to sea with devastating effect. Sergeant William Jasper distinguished himself in the bombardment when the flag was shot and sent to the sandy floor. He raised it up, waving it in grand fashion, exposing himself to fire, encouraging the men.

Old heroes, of a different age, their statues standing under live oaks in White Point Garden.

Further down and around tour groups standing in the shade against Dock Street Theater, I arrive at the intersection with Church Street, the block featured in many postcards. The last active Huguenot Church in America sits on the southeast corner — roseate, of a diadem appearance. Saint Phillip’s stands above about a hundred yards up Church, slightly askew from the earthquake of 1886. The three porticoes are imposing. The tower and spire complete what is the most impressive piece of the skyline. When it rains and the church is drenched from the top down giving it a darker hue there are few better sights.

Charleston is an old town that clings to the old ways. Such fondness can bring conflict. Here was fought in the courts a schism in the Episcopalian Church. Parishioners and preachers repulsed by the new theology took Saint Phillip’s for their own, forming the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina. After arguments at every level of the South Carolina judicial system, these schismatics would branch off with the prize.

You can peer between the wrought iron railings to see who rests in the graveyard of strangers, parishioners of Saint Phillip’s not born in Charleston. There is John C. Calhoun, entombed in a large sepulcher. There he lies in the same cemetery as William Rhett, the pirate hunter. Not only does Calhoun’s statue move, but so have his remains: exhumed in Washington DC, brought to Charleston and paraded in a grand funeral procession, then removed to the eastern side to hide him from Union troops, before once again resting here.

The IAAM is built over the old Gadsden Wharf. If that name is familiar, it is because it is named after Christopher Gadsden, the firebrand and leader of the Sons of Liberty during the Revolutionary War. His tree chopped up by the Brits but then when Charleston was liberated Gadsden turned the stump into a set of canes. One is now proudly displayed in Monticello. It was Gadsden’s wharf where some hundred thousand slaves entered.

What many get wrong as I walk and overhear the many visitors or when I speak with friends or relatives about Charleston is that the City Market, now emerging before me, did not allow the sale of slaves within. It was strictly a market for food or wares. This land, filled in over Daniel’s Creek, was conveyed with the condition in the deed it would only be used for this purpose. This condition was breached in 1793 when it hosted French refugees, men and women who escaped the revolt in Saint-Domingue. Now there is no escaping the tourists who plod about. The cruise ship unloads its cargo here for afternoon shopping trips to the historic market.

This is Ansonborough, named after George Anson, an English naval officer who it is said won this land in a game of cards — though there is strong evidence this is only myth. He’d gain renown in the War of Jenkins’ Ear — or as the Spanish called it “la Guerra del Asiento” — and for his circumnavigation during it. Access to ports and strangleholds on the slave trade to the Americas gave rise to conflict, but the pretext of an English sailor having his ear trimmed by a Spaniard earned the support of the people. Anson would pillage the Spanish holdings in the Pacific while in command of the Centurion before making his way back home to England four years later. Ansonborough once had a street named for his flagship. You can find George Street running east-west here, along with the street I walked up to reach the IAAM, Anson Street.

The Spanish moss is overdone, draping the Arapaho crape myrtles all in bloom. The houses are each unique facing the street or having a piazza. I tend to peer into backyards when any small opening allows. Here there is plenty of opportunity. Tucked-away gardens get only a glimpse. Flowerboxes on windows make the sidewalk narrower.

From the Market’s noisy grinds and clops comes the sound of cicadas and an occasional bird flittering. Anson Street has little foot traffic and even fewer cars as it is too narrow to be a thoroughfare of any kind. Saint Stephen’s Episcopal church comes up on my left. It was the first to offer pews free of charge. There is a wooden cross atop, crooked to the right. Behind blooming trees is the pride flag, fluttering upon a parish building.

Two weeks ago the Ports Authority withdrew a proposed development of the Union Pier terminal, a stretch of land owned by the port across East Bay Street. There was apparent outrage over the plan, at least from the only quarters that mattered — the press. The etchings had a good-looking park with the old rice mill façade as a centerpiece. However, the port gave up, withdrawing the proposal. According to The Post and Courier, in order to receive approval the port will consult the Joseph P. Riley Center for Livable Communities, an interdisciplinary initiative at the College of Charleston. It also happens to be a municipal election year with the incumbent John Tecklenburg — right-hand man of former Mayor Joe Riley — facing scrutiny for his handling of the city, especially the 2020 riots.

It is four blocks of what everyone loves about this town: the single house, the piazzas, the many blooms, the variety of color, and all the vernacular architecture you find in the magazines. Lord Anson’s land is worth a walk.

***

I had decided to wear a light blazer, something professional, as I am entering what is considered hallowed ground by our chattering classes. My shirt is untucked, but with the separation of domains being what they are, at least having a jacket brought a sense of propriety to my appearance. I was sweating when I came to East Bay Street. Here the closest crosswalk is up the block so I instead scoot across when it is clear.

There is a vast asphalt lot. There, standing in front of rows and rows of cars in that great waste, was the Bennett Rice Mill façade. Like an arch from antiquity, it stands in the alien land, brick upon brick and pediments above the windows, featured in the center is a lunette with pilasters underneath. Now all there is of the rice fields in the outer-lying country are impoundments, overgrown and filled with gators. Mechanical production out west replaced the Carolina Gold Rice strand at the turn of the 20th century.

There are old drawings online and in the many stores of the harbor. The forest of masts, sails blotting out the further shore, must have been a sight. The smell of salt infused in the bows of ships from Europe and Africa, the distant mutter of voices upon the deck, the thuds of cargo set upon the docks. They say the slave ships were the foulest. That the Guinea captains could be smelt before the ship crossed the mouth’s horizon. Now all you hear is the drone of engines and the laugh of many girls as they are buzzed across to some beach. There is the overwhelming horn of the freighters coming in from Asia.

It is not a grand entry. Tucked in between a building hosting boat tours around the harbor to the right and to the left rising over in ugly fashion is what I think is an old hotel, something more fit for the boardwalk of Myrtle Beach. The museum is a white rectangular box atop cylinders with windows covering the front. It is a single story though elevated above the ground. Modern in all appearance, it strives to be anything other than a classical piece. There is overgrown grass at the front and what I think at first are ancient tumuli. I read a sign with the title: “Dune Garden, supported by The Boeing Company.”

Signs placed throughout ask visitors to “Please Respect This Sacred Space.” The protocols, the customs with which one is to respect this sacred space are not explained. Perhaps I am to approach it as I do the altar for the Mass? Must I kneel? Is the offerant to chant ad introibo altare Dei? But there is no sacrifice made continually here — the act remembered here was performed some three hundred years ago. Is this the sight of a miracle? I recall visiting one in Ecuador some ten years ago, where it was attested some girls saw the Virgin Mary. Pious folk pulled off the highway to stand in silence or to kneel before this place on earth where the divine manifested. But here on this shore were brought men and women only. Does this “space” turn them anathemata in the traditional sense, as things set apart, as gratuitous objects offered to be worshipped? There is the boring cliché that the progressive ideology has morphed into a faith, yet there are some trappings, some stolen language and custom. I chalk it up to inaccuracy, of a class not precise. There is a desperation to their language, of straining to assign significance. For at this place there is no re-presenting, no anamnesis. I see no relics, just the meandering brick walls that I assume are meant to give one the impression of the waves on the passage those sorry souls took. Is this akin to a battlefield? As the many Civil War battlefields are heralded where men tossed themselves into cannon fire, where modern warfare subverted chivalry of old and set the course we now ride?

I travel through the garden on the outside where tall grass, African flora, lazily waves in the sea breeze. I find at the end a pile of bricks not picked up, resting forgotten. The entrance is seaward — are we supposed to get the sense of being loaded into the facility where slaves were inspected?

The stairs go up to the left then up once more. There is a glass ceiling above. Perhaps meant to convey the sense of laying at the bottom of a ship, with the only sun coming through the hatch into the cargo hold. But it is much too bright with the white walls. There is none of that dread, that horror, of laying chained in filth in pitch black, the fumes of the sea combined with human waste.

I walk inside and am given a map. QR codes ask you to donate and become a member. Two white people sit behind a desk staring at computers. Drums, drums, and drums meet you through speakers and screens as tall as six feet stretch down a hall from the lobby towards another section. This is called the “Transatlantic Experience.” The images change from still photos to videos. From tragedy to triumph. They explain that Europeans exploited conflicts between the tribes to enslave Africans. There is no mention of the Arab slave trade antedating the European by centuries.

I was initially confused by the name of the museum: what is an International African American? I was raised in a small town in Virginia and had few black classmates at school, fewer at my church. I was taught to call them black, then African American, and am now to address them once again as black. But it dawned on me there, a revelation, that I am witness to an ethnogenesis of peoples not just here in the States but who span the Western Hemisphere, tucked in by Monroe into our half of creation. There are Brazilian dancers flashing around the screen as messages blare across of the cultural victory now won by the diaspora. “The diaspora is connected,” the screen tells me, “The diaspora is Pan-African,” I learn.

I admire Christopher Dawson, a Catholic historian from the first half of the 20th century. He was a less frightful Spengler on the rise and fall of nations, though still pessimistic of the changes underway in his time. Dawson spoke of four social changes in his book The Age of the Gods. His third is as follows: two different peoples interact, whether it be through warfare, conquest, or peaceful transaction; a new environment is settled and an organic process of fusion produces a new culture; there are several centuries of silent growth during which the people live on the old traditions; then comes a period of intense activity where new forms are created by the union of two peoples and the culture bursts into a great flower, and there is a reawakening of the old mixed with the new; creative ventures are exploding, great achievements are had, vitality abounds, but there is violence and revolts and perhaps fulfillment; and then it reaches maturity and there is a permanent balance between the two, a stabilization.

He says a culture is comprised of four elements: a community of work, a community of thought, a community of place, and a community of blood.

I start with a video presentation in an adjoining room. The title is “Seeking.” There is a classroom helmed by a Native American man. He is teaching a class made up of boys and girls, black and white. He tells them of a Gullah tradition of wandering into the woods of the Lowcountry, of seeking the ancestors in them. A little black girl in antebellum garb sits in a live oak, performing her rite of passage, listening for the voices. No gods are spoken of, just disembodied voices of the blood echo in the swamp. Heavy emphasis on the Underground Railroad is made with references to hidden messages weaved into blankets. What language model they used isn’t revealed. The figures are nothing more than red or blue polygons. This is then followed by a closed caption conveying what can only be understood by those carrying the special knowledge. The ancestors’ voices guide them not to the homeland, but to the north, where I assume they then tell the runaway slave how to get hired at a textile factory. The camera pans out, and the girl is shown to be sitting in the Angel Oak, a notorious tourist trap.

No one in the museum speaks much. There is a middle-aged white couple, husband and wife, both wearing glasses that appear to be the same style. The artifacts are interesting. There are slave badges, those bits of metal that allowed a skilled slave to practice a trade outside his master’s purview — though he was expected to give up some of his earnings. There are chains, there are written ledgers of slave sales. Advertisements are shown.

I walk to the eastern end of the museum, towards the river. This area is called the “South Carolina Connections” exhibit. There is a wide screen. This one shows a repeating video of black triumphs and despair in their new homes. There is a particular emphasis on the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue. The video tells how blacks were exploited for their knowledge of rice cultivation in South Carolina. Windrush is brought up — again, this is the International African American Museum. They boldly proclaim the Windrush immigrants changed the demographics of the United Kingdom.

In a glass case is a Mardi Gras masquerading suit. Bright green feathers make up most of it, but on its center is a harder material with images of various African men and women. There is the last king of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, depicted in regal fashion. See, he is now part of the diaspora known as African American.

I spoke about the artifacts — the chains, the badges, et cetera. The museum in its run-up to opening boasted of having a wide array of pieces. I’d say the majority do not antedate 2016, when the latest civil rights movement began in earnest two years before. Various apparel, mostly hats, are encased and shown as expressions of the diaspora.

I leave the Atlantic Worlds exhibit and enter “African Roots & African Routes,” a horrible play on words. There is a video of a pagan ritual in Mali. It is a funeral ceremony where men walk on stilts. A display showing a piece of parchment covered in Arabic script catches my eye. The description talks about the fusion of Islam with Western Africa. There is again no mention of the vast Trans-Saharan slave trade, only that Islam found its way to the tribes through some conflict but it was through peaceful trade the faith was spread. A telling of the Zanj Rebellion would have been interesting, but I suppose that would not be African American.

I walk back through the Transatlantic Experience, turn right and go down what is called “American Journeys.” It is filled with BLM material. It seems “protest” is the aspect of the diaspora they want visitors to most understand. Everywhere there is protest. Random nursing protests. Lunch counter protests. I realized as I proceeded through this portion that I was walking backward.

“Center for Family History.” Therein one can find if he has the blood of the diaspora, from whom he descends, from what port was he taken aboard. I arrive at the end of the Civil War. There is no mention of the thousands of dead Union troops. There is talk of self-emancipation. Screens lecture me. There is a black girl, and she tells me she is proud to be born a Black Woman. “Honored,” she says, honored to be born a black woman. What deity molded her she neither acknowledges nor thanks. She talks about hidden cues black women have, some secret nonverbal language. My mind travels to ads on TV, and I begin to think she is right.

In the center between the American Journeys is a special exhibition. It was a maze of photographed portraits. Lebron James was in there. Ta-Nehisi Coates stared dumbly back at me. Rappers were abundant. Almost all were 20th and 21st-century figures. I saw a poem written on the wall called “Ego Tripping,” by someone named Nikki Giovanni. The title was fitting. She waxed on about her daughter being Nefertiti and designing the pyramids and building the sphinx and giving birth to the Nile. It ended with her declaring to be “a beautiful woman.”

As I left, a sign on the wall caught my eye. It was the list of sponsors. First and foremost was Boeing. It seemed the more money you donated, the larger the font of your name would be. Below Boeing, but still in the large font section, was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mackenzie Scott rounded out the large font donors I knew off the top of my head. Various banks occupied a smaller font section: JP Morgan, Truist, Bank of America.

I had seen enough. Across the tracks again, up to Calhoun Street, past Mother Emanuel AME, there is a place in Wraggsborough with cheap beer…

***

The myth of the African-American ethnogenesis is a myth of triumph of the will. A force impedes them from the start — white people, Europeans — and Africans enriched their enslavers, culturally and economically, while resisting their influence. Christianity is mentioned once, in passing. Islam is given a much warmer reception. The pagan traditions from the very people who sold them were longed for. The diaspora is democracy manifest, in flesh and blood, illumined corporeal entities of all that is Good and True.

Some 260,000 slaves entered the port of Charleston out of some 12 million who made the trip across the Atlantic. So why is the museum here? Was it for the namesake of the wharf? Gadsden, the fiery patriot, whose flag is waved by political and cultural enemies of the regime, whose name is synonymous with liberty without conditions. Or was it for Charleston writ large and her history? Beauregard’s clever cannons appearing from the ether to fire on the hapless troops commanded by his former West Point professor, the convention to secede from the Union, the first state, influenced by her lodestar Calhoun, the last original political theorist America has produced. Or was this present-day political machination? Clyburn, so powerful in Congress, ruling his fiefdom, bringing all future Democratic presidential primaries to South Carolina first, possibly combined with “Little Black” Joe Riley securing the egos and votes of the innumerable Section 8 neighborhoods that dot the city map to keep the Holy City in the grip of his coterie of Irish democrats — could this be why the myth of the diaspora wound up here? Was this a more material and shallow explanation? Charleston is a much-vaunted tourist destination, with scores of restaurants sporting glowing reviews from critics far and wide — and don’t forget all the sights! — or could this be an untapped market of black tourism that I have not read about?

Why here? Perhaps to poke the eye of history? To say this city, once the wealthiest in the Western Hemisphere, is actually the birthplace of a greater people, a diaspora so powerful it spans the globe and makes everywhere it goes better than it was before. This diaspora arrives then resists injustice that preceded arrival, that was always there — they are some kind of expeditionary force, bringing equality wherever they go. Without them, you are backward. With them, you are ascendant on a higher moral plane.

I must get home.

Off to King Street. Here in 1876 was a riot of blacks. They ransacked stores and killed a few whites. In 2020, blacks and white allies attempted to light the city ablaze. A store owner fired a shot in the air to disperse the crowd. He was arrested — his fate I am not aware of.

King Street, the Broad Path, the King’s Highway: it was the road into the continent from Charleston. Natives would come down with hides and slaves of their own. The planters before the Revolution were chided for using native slaves. In the ’70s and ’80s you could not come around here. Crime was rampant. Some homes now occupied by students were once drug dens.

Further down, approaching Marion Square. The statue of Calhoun once presided over this green. Now he is shelved away, his plinth exploded by dynamite on the orders of the city. All that remains for people to look at are the homeless, a slice of the old tabby wall, and the Holocaust memorial.

Below Calhoun, on down King. To the intersection at Market Street where, in 1919, white sailors destroyed black businesses after a few felt cheated in a game. There has been an effort to raise a sign describing this incident for all to see.

Further down, further down, past Charleston’s most popular seafood joint. A line of people waits to give their number to the maître de. Some people stand on the corner of King and Clifford. There, in July 2020, three black boys looking for people to rob shot and killed the husband of the vice provost of the College of Charleston. She and her husband had just moved to town. I haven’t read about it since, whether she stayed or left, how she has carried on. Last I heard, the courts were deliberating on whether to try the boys as adults. Where those couples stand waiting to slurp oysters there once was a makeshift memorial to the husband. It was removed after a month.

As I come back home, I cannot make sense of it — there is no solvitur ambulando. What are we supposed to do with all this? I think of how the Anglo has had his own diaspora: of how the Aussie differs from a Kiwi; of how the Apache shaped the Saxon; the Canadian, once so feared, now a hollow man. I think of the French who came here, the Huguenot. How men like Manigault along with his compatriots kept some French sensibility but still reached the heights of Charleston society. How the church here is the very last in America, and how there are only one or two services a year performed in the native tongue. A dead faith of a dead people right before your eyes.

Why do I laugh, then, as I recall my trip, and the strange forthrightness of the new ethnogenesis? Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur.

Charleston Nabob is a writer in Charleston, South Carolina.


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