Strange Fruit: A Look at the Transatlantic Slave Trade through “Spirits of the Passage” Exhibit

“He looked at me and smiled and put his hand in the sand, and put some sand into my hand. I didn’t think much about it. And I looked at it, and it was full of trade beads. It was  full of the beads that were actually traded for people.”

Even after studying it for years, Madeleine Burnside says the reality and magnitude of the Transatlantic Slave trade hit her in this moment, at the bottom of the ocean, exploring the shipwreck site of the Henrietta Marie. Dr. Burnside is the Executive Director of the Frazier History Museum, and she curated their current original exhibit, Spirits of the Passage

Dr. Burnside has studied the history of the slave trade for the last twenty years. “It’s one of those subjects that when you start at all, it will not let you go,” she says. For her, the story begins once you get past the horrific (but dry) statistics you learn in school. “You start to think about maybe just 200 people on a ship,” she explains. “You start to imagine that you know these people as individuals, and I really sort of started to feel a really big responsibility to tell that story.”

This week we went to see the exhibit, then sat down for a chat with Dr. Burnside about putting it all together. She says for her, it’s not about the past at all (strange words coming from a historian!). “There’s only one reason to study history, and that’s to understand the future, not the past.” To that point, she draws comparisons between the rebellion and resistance of enslaved Africans straight through to the struggles we still face today. “There’s Civil Rights, there’s women’s rights, there’s gay and lesbian rights, and then there’s ADA. All of those people really built on Civil Rights and that struggle. And the 1960s struggle comes out of the 1860s struggle comes out of the 1760s struggle.”

  One disturbing part of the exhibit is a collection of shackles that were used on enslaved people during transport. Within this case, among the battered-looking metal ankle and wrist restraints, is one very tiny set of shackles that could have only been used on a very small woman or on a child. But even this somewhat heart-wrenching artifact points to a strength of spirit. “There’s no reason to restrain someone who doesn’t fight,” Dr. Burnside points out. “These people fought back.”

While at the museum, we also ran into friend to the show Brian Lee West (you might remember him from our conversation about his work in the play Top Dog/Underdog). For the Spirits of the Passage Exhibit, he portrays Olaudah Equiano, a Nigerian man who was captured as a child and sold into slavery. Brian tells us the story of Equiano’s life and the amazing series of events that lead to his eventual freedom and authorship of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, a major work among North American slave narratives.

Spirits of the Passage will be on display at the Frazier through June 16th. 

In this week’s Juicy Fruit Segment, we congratulate Magic Johnson’s son EJ on coming out (or maybe he was already out, but TMZ didn’t know about it yet) and give kudos to Magic and Cookie for their public response to the story. And our recap of RuPaul’s Drag Race leads Jaison and Kaila to a spirited disagreement about whether Paula Abdul’s song “Cold Hearted” is famous or unknown. What do you think, Fruitcakes?

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