Upon arriving back home from Berlin, Germany I can’t stop wondering: Why isn’t there a Museum of American Slavery?
Last Sunday, while at a dinner party in Germany, I asked my friend a question about the Nazis. “Immediately, I realized it might be rude to discuss that painful period in German history. I apologized and tried to change the subject.”
My friend interrupted me, “No need to apologize, please let’s talk about the Nazis.” From there he explained at length how modern Germany has come to terms with such a regretful past. In our conversation I came to admire the educational resources, artifacts, and museums that the German people have to keep their past alive. All of these resources act together to advance the mantra: this should never happen again, not in Germany, not anywhere in the world.
I wish Americans felt the same way about our relationship to slavery. Sure, in America we have built museums that uphold memories of our history and monuments that praise our fallen veterans. But what I’ve noticed is that we tend to erect monuments where we see ourselves as either the victors, or victims. For instance, Vietnam Memorial includes only American names, and does not have any of the names of the Vietnamese dead.
Compare this with Germany, where in Berlin’s city center you will find the an enormous Holocaust memorial: 19,000 square meters wide and right in the center of the city situated behind the US Embassy and the Brandenburg Gate. It is there for everyone to see. The name imparts tremendous responsibility on the German people: “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” This is what responsibility looks like! The monument serves as artifacts of a regretful past. We can learn from it, and have conversations about it, all so that we never forget.
Someone once said that “those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.” I’m afraid that in America, we often repeat the bad parts of history.
Take a look at Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall between Mexico and America: I can tell you that there are no conversations in Germany at the moment where the solution is to build a wall between Germany and its border countries! Why? Because there is literally still a wall still standing in Berlin to remind the Germans that, “Nope, that wall didn’t work out.” But here in America, we hide our scars. We don’t take the same responsibility.
While at dinner that night in Berlin, I admired my friend. Because when speaking about Nazis, he took responsibility for his German past. Not “responsibility” for the horrors committed, but the responsibility for not letting people forget.
Why Doesn’t America Have a Museum of Slavery? I’m not sure of the answer. All I can wonder is that if history is truly written by the winners, then why don’t the “winners” of the 13th Amendment have their own museum? Only after all Americans can take the same level of responsibility for the past, can we ever evolve as a country beyond our wounds, and finally start healing.