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By now, most people know about the “Big House” incident. A plantation photo exhibit, “Back of the Big House,” was set to open at the Library of Congress (LC) last December when a group of employeeslargely African-Americanprotested its insensitive depiction of slavery. Saying the exhibit was “offensive” to some, especially given long-standing labor grievances among black employees, LC canceled the show within hours. That the complaints of a small group could scuttle a professionally curated exhibit was bizarre. That LC pooh-poohed the affair as a “non-story” was arrogant. And that the press has made it a parable of PC censorship ignores the collusion between whites and blacks that continues to make the memory of slavery a public taboo.
The offending display has been revived for Washingtonians and is being shown at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library until Feb. 11 as “The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation.” (This replacement of the show’s title with its former subtitle is the only part of the exhibit to have been changed.) For anyone with an interest in American historynot to mention the continuing saga of identity politicsthe exhibit is worth the trip for its rare photographic documentation of former slaves. But don’t be fooled: “Big House,” whatever the fuss, is no more likely to be banned in Boston than a bootleg edition of The Narrative of Frederick Douglass.
The decision to pack up the show came as a shock, says curator John Michael Vlachespecially because no one at LC ever informed him. Vlach admits he isn’t surprised the subject generated some controversy, however. A professor of American Studies at George Washington University, he calls the slave material “ethnographic dynamite,” noting that historians have been wrangling for years about how to approach slaverywhether to emphasize its brutality or the heroic resistance it engendered. “This is frankly no different than what happens when you get up to give a lecture in a classroom,” says Vlach, whose respected 1993 book, Back of the Big House, was the basis for the LC display. But lecture-hall attendance is voluntary; a space adjacent to the employee cafeteria in a racially troubled institution turned out to be a tougher venue.
Vlach shrugs off comparisons with recent curatorial Titanics. “Some of the press has tried to steer this to a censorship issue,” he says, “that this is just like ‘Enola Gay’ or backing down from the Freud exhibit.” But the LC “censorship” had a different source: what Vlach calls “poisonous labor relations” at LC and the 1982 class-action discrimination suit by black employees, which has never been entirely resolved. “The [LC’s] not saying the public can’t see it. They’re not saying it’s a pack of lies. They’re just saying we cannot see it at this time in [their] building,” he says. What’s more, adds Vlach, an LC contractor whose wife is an LC employee, “that rings true for me in some ways, given my sense of how awful work conditions are for people of color in the LC.”
He refers to “extraordinary management foul-ups in the library,” saying “the overworked and loyal staff people have been running the operation and doing a good job of it,” with little money or support. While Librarian of Congress James Billington has garnered praise for standing up to the Supreme Court in making public the Thurgood Marshall papers, Vlach offers, the “Big House” incident belies his commitment to an open library. “He defended access” then, says Vlach with a shrug. “Now other people want access….There’s no reason the library ought to be able to say, ‘Except in this case.’ “
Vlach notes that there were concerns about “Big House” from the start. An earlier LC exhibit, “Selections From the African-American Mosaic,” had drawn fire from some staff members for its emphasis on slavery, though protests were later stilled. Vlach, who has curated several exhibits on folk culture, suggested they wait until February to open the show: “It’s a hard sell at Christmastime to talk about slavery,” he explains. His idea was overruled by Carolyn Brown, assistant librarian for library services, he says, who finally argued, “‘It’s time to get over Black History Month.’ ” The Office of Interpretive Programs suggested they proceed with carethen LC failed to get word out on “Big House” to rank-and-file staffers.
Brown admits that a February opening “wouldn’t have surprised people so much,” but thinks black history should be “appropriate to any time of year.” And she’s worried that “people are treating [this] emblematically,” not as a discrete instance. LC has done potentially controversial shows on the Columbian quincentenary, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and aspects of black culture, she notes, all without raising a fuss. Though involved in planning the exhibit, Brown admits that LC didn’t grasp that “history gets used in different ways….There’s a glorious view [of the past] and a ‘let’s see what actually happened view,’” and employees, she adds, weren’t prepared for the latter perspective embodied in “Big House.”
A visit to the contraband show remounted at MLK testifies that it partakes of both the hopeful and the solemn. Some 80 black-and-white photographs depict an upside-down view of the big houselooking in from the fields rather than out from a Palladian window. Photos range from the defiant portrait of former slave Shad Hall to images of myriad slave quarters: rickety and solid, log cabin and Gothic. Much of the testimony of former slaves is in dialecta point of contention for some critics. Though not widely reported, the exhibit is about more than slavery: Many of the work photos date from decades after the Civil War, a reminder that emancipation didn’t free many Southern blacks from backbreaking laborand, correspondingly, that the legacy of slavery has been slow to die.
Vlach used the LC collectionsand more. He sought “ennobling” images of blacks, he says, unlike many LC photos he calls “caricatures””banjo poses” and people “looking broke-down and shiftless.” Some of the finest Depression-era photos in the show were lent by Malcolm Bell, whom Vlach has since convinced to donate many priceless negatives to LC. The curator also used photos of former slaves that were buried in the LC manuscripts division, some pasted to onionskin paper”not a good preservation mode,” he notesand compiled a finding list for researchers. Vlach says that, having pored over 40,000 pages of testimony from former slaves, “to see these faces for people whose words I’d quoted and excerpted for years was a real breakthrough.”
To “vivify” the space, he proposed an audio component: some ex-slaves speaking, others playing bones, quills, and scrapers on recordings done in the ’20s and ’30s. (How many people alive todayespecially under the age of 60have ever heard the voice of a former slave?) Though early LC criticism of the exhibit was that the show had too many buildings and not enough people, says Vlach, they later nixed the tape loop as “too complicated and involved.” He says that, of early recordings transferred to acetate tape, a few, like that of Annie Dennis of Texas, are so clear it sounds like “she’s sitting there talking to you.” But the show was over budget, says one LC spokesperson, and an audio loop would have “changed the security requirements for the exhibition.”
The irony is that “Big House” suffered from trying to mollify both sides. The exhibit reflects the “We achieved this” politics of self-empowerment, while respecting the traditional plaint of “Why us?” Text relates that some slaves were “gifted” artisans and preachers; at the same time, the cruelty of slavery is made clear, if raw details are few. As Vlach states a principle that has become commonplace among historians, “A people should not be simply defined by its suffering.” The contradictory span of complaints by LC employeesranging from the claim that history should be “positive” to the accusation that the exhibit was soft on slaveryshould have alerted LC that it was dealing with, far from an “offensive” exhibit, a fundamentally balanced and conservative one.
Slavery in public venues has courted controversy in recent years all over the East Coast. The Royall House (Medford, Mass.), once the home of a slaveowner, was placed on a commemorative postage stamp in 1990; the current owners and the postal service were both drubbed in the press by criticssome African-Americanwho blasted them for not celebrating a “more positive” chapter of history. In 1994, a Virginia chapter of the NAACP protested a re-enacted estate auction at Colonial Williamsburg that included the sale of slaves. A few months earlier, Washington Post writer Courtland Milloy had roasted the Walt Disney Co. for considering “some Kunta Kinte-style whipping post next to the cotton candy stand” at its would-be theme park in northern Virginia.
Traveling the hinterland under the LC logo, the former “Big House,” one suspects, can’t be that offensive. LC is booking rentals at $2,000 a throw, the money used to cover “organizational” expenses. (LC wouldn’t say whether fees help recoup production costs.) The show had already visited several places before the blowup; others, from Virginia to Texas, are scheduled to host it soon. Says Vlach, “Rarely have they gotten such easy bookings.” He then adds, “They say they’re really interested in getting it to other venues,” which he grants may be true outside the Beltway, “but the only reason it’s going to MLK is because MLK came and asked for it.”
Like most LC employees, Brown is reluctant to hold forth about an embattled institution: security problems in collections, the class-action suit, the Freud brouhaha. Even so, she’s sensitive about the issue of who tells minority history. She professes doubts about whether a white person should have been permitted to curate the show, for fear of “issues that get left out”even unintentionallywhen treated by an outsider. At the Holocaust Memorial Museum, she argues, “the people writing the history are Jewish….If black people were trying to write the history of the Holocaust, that would be a problem.”
Vlach, however, cites numerous phone calls and letters from African-Americans supporting him. Now that he’s done a quarter-century of research on black cultures, he says, “people will usually be less inclined at the get-go to say, ‘This is a honky coming in to tell me about myself.’ ” Brown, who is black, acknowledges that the exhibit was vetted by African-American historians. But Vlach doesn’t dispute at least part of her thesisthat, as she describes it, “there are fights about history because it’s about the present.”
Admits Vlach, “Some [black] people are more secure in all this history and in their image,” than those “who haven’t made it….A head of an architecture firm can afford to [turn] around and say, ‘Get over it.’” As for people who wonder why blacks can’t memorialize slavery the way Jews do the Holocaust, Vlach acknowledges that many Jewish-Americans “have gotten over it.” Meanwhile, he says, “the plantation metaphor is all over African-American lingo.”
But will the LC spat give comfort to those whofor fear of offending a different audiencehave long hushed up the story of slavery? At last trying to broach the topic, plantations like Mount Vernon and Monticello sort visitors into “mansion” and “plantation” tours, a Jim Crow ride that insulates the fine-furniture crowd from hard questions. Mount Vernon, to name only one, doesn’t have a single African-American administrator or regent to help govern a restored community that was over 90 percent black. From the National Park Service to well-endowed nonprofits, the refusal to look at slavery head-on is endemic to public culture.
Press coverage to the contrary, many LC employees felt the exhibit should never have been pulled. Eric Orr of the Junior Fellows Program calls it “management by reaction,” trying to solve a dispute by placating a small minority. Camila Bryce-Laporte of the American Folklife Center opines that much was inadequate: the exhibit space, the title, the in-house publicityand management’s decision to strike the show. “This would have been the perfect forum for discussion,” she says of an institution she believes is riven, like the culture at large, by race, class, and gender divisions.
In hindsight, Brown calls the exhibit a “lose-lose” propositionput up or taken down, it would have drawn fire from inside or out. But it doesn’t speak well of LC that one arm of management doesn’t seem to know what the other is doing. (Not three years ago, LC dropped a screening of the racist Birth of a Nation, only to revive it later with an accompanying sensitivity seminar.) Running slavery underground may quiet immediate grievances, but it will give it more power to divide people in the long run. “You can call this show ‘Back of the Big House’ in South Africa,” muses Vlach, referring to a recent radio story abroad, “but not in Library of Congress.”CP