Colonial & Antebellum Architecture and Historical Memory (Slavery in Newport, Rhode Island)

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At its height, some 60% of the American slave trade went out of Newport, Rhode Island, underscoring the argument that American freedom and American slavery are deeply imbricated. Once you know only that little much, that imbrication becomes physically palpable in places like Newport. In New York City, it is easy to forget and not to think. There the colonial past has been more or less blasted away by the grid and by new construction. Outside Greenwich Village and an odd site here and there, barely a trace of the colonial past remains. There is nothing to see at the site of the slave market at 75 Wall Street or of the homesteads destroyed to create Central Park, but you can visit the African Burial Ground National Monument. Seth Kamil can tell me otherwise, but I would suggest that in New York, the historical-architectural “genius” of the place (by which I mean for the purpose of this blogpost the oldest architectural strata preserved en masse) is late nineteenth and early twentieth century. That historical feel is anchored in place by the Brooklyn Bridge, the tenements on the Lower East Side, the elegant brownstones of Harlem and Brooklyn, and mansions of Fifth Avenue and Riverside Drive. In Newport, the colonial past and with it the memory of the slave trade are maintained by the very presence of the carefully preserved eighteenth and early nineteenth century architecture, which keeps the memory of that time gelled in place. The stain is even on the water. In conversation with the architecture on shore, even the ocean when so ascribed carries a trace of that memory.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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