This year marks 200 years since the government of Great Britain abolished the slave trade. To commemorate the anniversary, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is presenting “Documenting Slavery,” which will be on display through October 31.
“Documenting Slavery” has arranged such materials as letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, leaflets and posters to illustrate slavery’s impact around the globe. Significant topics, including abolition and emancipation, are discussed from diverse perspectives in a variety of documents.
The Beinecke’s massive stone frame cannot help but induce a feeling of alienation, which may be an appropriate environment considering the inherently discomfiting nature of the exhibit. Nevertheless, all materials that comprise “Documenting Slavery” are confined to a single display case shielded by a thick pane of glass, and it is difficult to experience the documents as anything more than distant relics from the past. Also, instead of dispersing the materials throughout the museum — allowing the spectator to create his own course between individual objects — the exhibit’s display case construction presents too much in too little a space. It is impossible to give each piece the time and attention it deserves.
On first glance, the larger visuals catch the eye. The exhibit includes several notable drawings, such as an original drawn plan of a slave ship vessel and an advertisement for an auction. Some neck craning reveals 1840s receipts for the sale of slaves, record-keeping documents and a written transcript of an 1847 John Calhoun speech before Congress.
The artistic elements of the exhibit create a fuller visual experience. A collection of daguerreotypes from 1850 are displayed alongside three drawings of Amistad prisoners from 1839 to 1840 by William H. Townsend. A rare photographic account of the Civil War from 1862 by Alexander Gardner entitled “Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War” and a selection of abolitionist children’s books including alphabet drawings, poems and songs make a lasting impression.
It is several written documents, however, that serve as the most arresting and memorable component of “Documenting Slavery.” Victor Hugo’s letter on John Brown was written to the editor of the London Star in an attempt to save the condemned Brown, who had been convicted of treason for inciting a 1859 slave revolt in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Also included in the letter was the response from Ann S. Stephens, the Star’s editor, which faulted Hugo for the “wild eloquence of his letter, which should not be allowed to make its way, unanswered, into a publication excitable as ours.”
Finally, “The Bondwoman’s Narrative,” thought to be the first novel written by an African American woman and the only one by a fugitive slave, is the exhibit’s most treasured artifact. Author Hannah Crafts wrote a fictionalized autobiography about a mixed-race girl whose escape from a North Carolina plantation results in a series of trials and tribulations, including having to pass for a white male and escaping slave hunters. In the end of the novel, the protagonist finds safety and freedom in the north.
Indeed, like all things housed within the Beinecke’s hallowed walls, the materials presented in “Documenting Slavery” are staggeringly impressive. Yet, it is a shame that they’re displayed in such constricting quarters.