These Are Not Their Names
This was my first visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.
I made my way very slowly through the exhibits, contemplating each artwork, reading each plaque.
I was looking to photograph items from the 18th century and prior, works that would have existed at the same time as the Revolutionary War-era industrial complex where my house now stands.
I found these earliest African artworks a marvel to behold. But they were relatively few compared to the number of African artworks in the collections that were dated the late 19th to mid 20th century.
There were two things that struck me about the newer artworks.
First, they seemed very similar to the artifacts from the 18th century and prior, suggesting a long rich history of culture, tradition and visual aesthetic deeply treasured, carefully passed down through the generations. A more experienced eye could distinguish between the newer and older artworks, but I could only sense in both the same sacred identity of a people.
The second thing that struck me was that while there obviously had to be an artist behind these works, even for articles as recent as the mid 20th century, most of the plaques bore no creator's name. The artists are unknown.
Let me pause for a moment and say that this is by no means a criticism of the museum. The exploration they have already done afforded me the opportunity to expand this exploration of myself and American culture. American history from this perspective that raises some uncomfortable questions. The museum has had to persist through this same discomfort, but that's another topic.
On my way out of the museum, I retraced my route back through the exhibits, seeing each piece a second time. Home with my photographs, I put my camera away without looking at them. I needed time to process the day's exploration.
It was in this context that my research, begun just two months prior, uncovered identities for three of the unfree Africans who worked the land where I live.
I know Cato and Hercules from an ad placed for their recapture when they ran away from the living hell of the ironworks in 1778.
I know Cheshire from the record of his sale by the ironmaster in 1771.
Cato. Hercules. Cheshire. As I said these names for the first time these people materialized from a nebulous concept in my mind into real individuals who walked on the very land I walk today.
What is a name but the most essential mark of personhood? And when a name is stripped away, what does that mean for a person and the footprints they leave in this world?
Cato. Hercules. Cheshire. These are not the names given them by families who loved them before they were born. This is not the sacred mark of personhood, imprinted on a child with wishes of a long, happy and prosperous life and proudly carried out into the world. There is no substitute for those names, and those names have been lost.
I may never know their names, but I know what they were called on this land. And I know that they were real people.