Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Three Stories of Race, One of Trace

The First Slavery Museum

NPR photo
Slave cabin, sugar kettles for boiling cane; Debbie Elliott/NPR

Did you see the article in The New York Times called “Building the First Slavery Museum in America“?

I found the article riveting. The builder of this museum, John Cummings, is a wealthy southern white man who bought the Whitney Plantation many years ago not knowing what he would do with it.

He received an extensive survey with his purchase. That led him to discover the story of slavery on the property. He decided that it was time we had, in this country, a museum that focused on the story of slavery, so he devoted himself to building it.

It provides “a different experience from those of its neighbors . . those that have been restored for tourists, transporting them into a world of bygone Southern grandeur — one in which mint juleps, manicured gardens and hoop skirts are emphasized over the fact that such grandeur was made possible by the enslavement of black human beings.”

The visitors looking at an exhibit on the North American slave trade can see, just outside, seven actual slave cabins. There is a slave jail; visitors see the “big house” while peering through the bars.

Cummings has been asked repeatedly why he spent many millions and fifteen years building the museum. He said. “I’ve been asked all the questions. About white guilt this and that. About the honky trying to profit off of slavery. But here’s the thing: Don’t you think the story of slavery is important?”

I think it is; I agree with Cummings that it’s high time we tell the story fully. I’m glad I was able to read about it and would love to see the museum. NPR also ran a piece on the museum; the photo is  from their website.

Jame Baldwin on Power

Jame Baldwin
James Baldwin

I received my daily email from The New Yorker to find nine articles from their archives in celebration of their 90 years of publishing. I chose one to read, “Letter from a Region in My Mind,” by James Baldwin, written in November 1962 when I’d been in Nigeria just two months.

I was not familiar with The New YorkerIt’s only in the last twenty or so years that I’ve understood its place in the American literary experience. Reading Baldwin’s piece confirmed its iconic role.

Baldwin talks about the concept of Negro and how it is confined to America.

“Negroes in this country—and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking, exist in any other—are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world. This world is white and they are black. White people hold the power, which means that they are superior to blacks . . and the world has innumerable ways of making this difference known and felt and feared. Long before the Negro child perceives this difference . . he has begun to react to it, he has begun to be controlled by it.”

I believe there has been some change in the 53 years since Baldwin wrote this, but white people still hold the power. Children of color, especially black boys, have to be taught an awareness of how that power can play out in deadly ways. We’ve seen this too often in recent months.

I have not read Baldwin’s works, but want to. I will suggest him to my two book groups, and/or for discussion in our racial justice work at the Unitarian Church.

And while searching to see which book I might suggest, I found an article from the NYTimes January 2014 travel section, by a writer who was retracing Baldwin’s steps in Paris. He talked about Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, set in 1950s Paris. The writer says, “I found this to be the first novel I’d encountered with the subject of homosexuality placed front and center and written by anyone who remotely resembled me.”

That might be the one to read. The other candidate would be Notes of a Native Son. Do you know his work? Do you have a recommendation?

Other Americans Should Go Abroad

You might be tempted to call this post ‘In Praise of The New York Times.’ Without intending, I’m quoting it repeatedly, with a dash of The New Yorker.

This afternoon I grabbed the “Sunday Review” section from my husband before he took it upstairs and mixed it in with other papers scattered on the floor of the bedroom.

Do you know how there are snippets of information across the top of the front page of the Sunday Review? One said, “Black Americans, go abroad,” by Thomas Chatterton Williams. I turned to the opinion piece, called “The Next Great Migration,” to find that the writer asks why more black Americans do not go overseas to live, at least for a time. Of course I thought of Baldwin.

And indeed, he said it’s an opportunity to experience, “the heady mix of anonymity and authority over his own identity that Baldwin once called ‘the sanction, if one can accept it, to become oneself.'”

Two former volunteers at the New Haven gathering
Two former volunteers at the New Haven gathering

Peace Corps and Trace TV

Last night a couple in New Haven hosted a gathering for Connecticut Returned Peace Corps volunteers. I love meeting other former volunteers – there are always wonderful stories to share. The best last night was when I said our son runs Trace TV in Nigeria. The host who had been in Mali shouted, “Oh, I love Trace TV. I watched it all the time!”

Our host is on the left
Our host is on the left and his wife on the right

Of course, it has been big in Francophone Africa for years. He told the others, “It’s like MTV used to be – all music videos, all the time! It’s where I first heard Rihanna.”


Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.


  1. I am really behind on your blog! Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed this one and the wonderful links you included. Gave me info and a sense of place and time that I needed to be reminded of (as well as completely new information. Thanks, Cathy

    • Thank you, Nancy. I was curious why I had a comment on a blog post from a few weeks ago, and now I know the answer! I’m so glad you enjoyed reading. And I wish you luck in catching up, but not to worry, they’ll wait for you.

  2. Strange how sometimes people think of the same things simultanously.
    After seeing “Selma” in the cinema last Friday – and crying my heart out –
    I went to a long neglected bookshelf and there found almost all of James Baldwin’s writings. I then remembered how striking and important they
    seemed to me in the 60s and I spent the weekend reading snatches and
    realising that although things might have changed, basically his observations are still as fresh and true today. His “The fire next time” appeared first in 1963 and is therefore more than 50 years old but it is still apparent that many of his warnings have not been taken seriously.
    His political analysis is great and still true in many aspects.
    His fiction is written in such a wonderful language and is very moving, I especially like “Go tell it on the mountain” a semiautobiographical
    passionate reckoning with his father and a short-story collection “Going to meet the man”
    Although it did not have good reviews at the time I alway loved his “A rap on race” from 1971, conversations with Margaret Mead in which he showed a softer, gentler side of his personality.
    I also highly recommed “Conversations with James Baldwin” published by the University Press pf Mississippi containing many very intersting interviews.
    And “Notes of a native son” and “Blues for Mr. Charlie” and, and, and…..
    Thank you for reminding us about a great writer and human being.

    • It’s wonderful to see that I wasn’t the only one thinking of James Baldwin. Thanks so much for the recommendations. I have a lot of catching up to do!

      • Hi Cathy,

        I forgot to say that while “Giovanni’s room” is a very well written novel about the
        situation of homosexuals in Europe in the 1950s/60s it contains only white characters.
        So it might not be really suitable for a discussion on racial justice. Although certainly worth reading or discussing in another context.