It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
This piece was originally published in February 2019. Come hear Masud Olufani speak at Scalawag Jubilee Atlanta on July 21st at Mother Bar.
In the heart of Atlanta's downtown corridor, at the intersection of Peachtree and Marietta streets, sits Five Points MARTA Station, the central hub of the city's public transportation thoroughfare. Completed in 1981, the structure serves as the transfer point for all rail lines, ferrying nearly 60,000 passengers a day to locations in and out of the city. As a student at Atlanta's Morehouse College in the mid-1990's, with little money and no car, I relied on MARTA to navigate the distance between my apartment and the campus. Five Points links the southwest rail line near the Atlanta University Campus to the north line that dropped me off just a block away from my one-room studio. I made that journey hundreds of times during my four years of college, walking up and down the platforms, watching the rats scurry across the empty railroad tracks. My books tucked under my arms, I was usually preoccupied with the moment and the immediate need to get from one place to the next, unaware of the secret that these walls held a haunting; voices of the slave market that once stood on these grounds—the Crawford Frazier Negro Brokerage House. Yet, there was no evidence of what took place here, no heroic marble or bronze plaques for the men, women, and children who passed from auction block to plantation. There was only the phantom trace of memory, the specter of suppressed history, the vibration of trauma muted by the clicking of heels on concrete, and the shrill screeching of trains.
Yet, there was no evidence of what took place here, no heroic marble or bronze plaques for the men, women, and children who passed from auction block to plantation. There was only the phantom trace of memory, the specter of suppressed history, the vibration of trauma muted by the clicking of heels on concrete, and the shrill screeching of trains.
It was while working as the host of the Atlanta Public Broadcasting series "Sherman on the March: 37 Weeks," that I first learned of the woeful past of Five Points MARTA station. The only surviving photograph of the Crawford Frazier Brokerage House, superimposed over an image of Five Points MARTA station, was a featured element of the series. I was stunned. Not by the reality of the existence of slavery in Atlanta—the territory that would come to be known as Georgia started enslaving human beings in the 18th century—but by slavery's proximity to my daily life. Indeed, it was its proximity to the daily lives of the thousands of Atlanta residents who utilize the MARTA rail system each day—nearly 80 percent of MARTA passenger are Black—that jarred me. As an adherent of the Baha'i Faith, bound by the ethical imperative to tell the truth, I knew something had to be done. As a citizen/artist, convinced of the transformative potential of artistic expression, I determined to create a symbolic gesture rendered in sculptural form that would illuminate, and heal.
As I began to reflect on which elements would constitute the design, the idea of the auction block immediately became the conceptual anchor. In the context of the slave system, the block, solitary and imposing, becomes an indicator of multiple meanings. The auction block is the symbolic locus of Western capitalism; the site representing the commodification of flesh that seeded the wealth of the nation. Fixed and rooted, the block is also a cruelly ironic reminder of the insecurity of the enslaved. It embodies the psychic disorder of anticipated, perpetual mobility; a literal and imagined negotiation between points known, and points unknown—between what was, and what is to be.
I often envision the finished version of the memorial placed in the shadow of the Five Points MARTA Station. "Blocked at Five Points" will feature 12 limestone blocks crowned with pairs of disembodied bronze feet representing the absent figures of the enslaved. The models for the feet represent an index of leading figures of Atlanta's civil and human rights community. Each block is inscribed with the names and prices of specific individuals sold at the Crawford Frazier Brokerage. An inlaid tile ring encircles the stones with the number eight marking the four quadrants (the official address of the auction house was 8 Whitehall Street). A vintage gas lantern adorned with a bronze plaque engraved with a newspaper article advertising the sale of a lot of 'healthy Negroes,' completes the design. My purpose behind the work is to create a touchstone of healing by revealing the shrouded ruins of our collective history. Its purpose is to humanize the objectified bodies of those lost to memory, and to reaffirm the inherent dignity of us all.
In the context of the slave system, the block, solitary and imposing, becomes an indicator of multiple meanings. The auction block is the symbolic locus of Western capitalism; the site representing the commodification of flesh that seeded the wealth of the nation. Fixed, and rooted, the block is also a cruelly ironic reminder of the insecurity of the enslaved.
Word about my design for a Five Points memorial to enslaved persons began to spread following my exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia in the summer of 2016. For the show, I created a performance work based around the history of Five Points, which featured edited footage of the site as it exists in its present iteration, and as it existed in the 19th century. During the gallery exhibit, opera singer Shala Whitehead emerged unexpectedly from the viewers. Embodying the voices of the enslaved, she mounted a set of auction blocks and began to sing a medley of negro spirituals. The response from the audience was visceral and emotionally jarring. Some spectators reacted with shocked horror, while others openly wept. During the winter of 2016, I was approached by Project Elevate, an annual citywide arts festival, to install a temporary version of the memorial at Five Points. However, further discussions with the city revealed the limits of a temporary installation. It seemed to me that a permanent memorial was the only ethical and just response, considering the historical significance of the site and the horrific events that took place there.
The levers of government turn at a slower pace when it comes to public art, and when the conceptual framework for that art is slavery, they nearly grind to a halt. MARTA felt the project was too 'controversial,' and the mayor's office expressed tepid interest in relocating the memorial.
Rather quickly a coalition of supporters coalesced around this shared vision—including project manager Carl Rojas and other leading figures in the Atlanta arts community. Now the only obstacle was securing funding. With this in mind, I approached friends at Savannah College of Art and Design to see if the university would be willing to serve as a funding source. The institution graciously agreed to fund, not only the memorial construction, but also to insure the completed project for twenty years. I was astounded, and overwhelmed with a deep sense of gratitude for the support. With funding secured, I assumed the main obstacle to the realization of the memorial had been removed. In retrospect I was a bit naïve. The levers of government turn at a slower pace when it comes to public art, and when the conceptual framework for that art is slavery, they nearly grind to a halt. MARTA felt the project was too 'controversial,' and the mayor's office expressed tepid interest in relocating the memorial. As progress towards the realization of the static memorial slowed in the various corridors of city government, I grew increasingly impatient with the process, and with the ongoing practice of historical erasure.
Structures like Five Points MARTA Station that ignore the history of the landscape they occupy are complicit in cycles that deny folks of color the dignity of representation in the very places that they have helped build, thereby sentencing them to a perpetual invisibility. Mass Design Group, the firm behind the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, espouses an ethical approach to design that views architecture as "a mechanism that projects its values far beyond a building's walls and into the lives of communities and people. To acknowledge that architecture has this agency and power is to acknowledge that buildings… are as accountable for social injustices as they are critical levers to improve the communities they serve." A thoughtfully conceived work of art can reimagine problematic architectural spaces, provide context to human experience, and inspire us to consider a clearer, more truthful representation of ourselves. Especially on sites seared by traumatic events, art can infuse these spaces with a profound sense of pathos that can elicit the catharsis necessary for restoration and renewal. Our willingness to act courageously in facing the failures of the past by marking public sites of brutality and degradation lays a foundation for collective healing and reconciliation.
How could I create a visual dialogue that would engage the residue of trauma associated with Transatlantic slave trade? Could my work facilitate a reckoning with these suppressed histories, and in turn, create a space for healing?
As my disappointment with the city of Atlanta subsided, I began to consider an alternative method for telling this story. I began to think about slavery, not merely as a regional enterprise inextricably tied to the formation of Southern identities and policies, but rather as a global institution, the legacy of which haunts public spaces across Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States. How could I create a visual dialogue that would engage the residue of trauma associated with the Transatlantic slave trade? Could my work facilitate a reckoning with these suppressed histories, and in turn create a space for healing?
"Blocked: A Global Healing Project" developed as a multimedia performance work, that will focus on sites in Europe, West Africa, the Caribbean, and America with historic links to the Transatlantic slave trade. Composed of footage shot on location, the finished project will be a 90-minute film that shifts between locations, tracing the global imprint of Slavery's aftermath. Period photographs, renderings, and relevant documents will fade in out of the picture frame—a ghostly haunting of contemporary public spaces. Like the original performance piece, vocalists will intone medleys of the diaspora sung in the languages of the shifting locations; French, Spanish, Dutch, Twi, Portuguese, and English. In a sense, the recorded performance is a more effective iteration of the initial project as it transcends the immobility of a site-specific work. Its digital format becomes a kinetic archive that demarcates our relative proximity to the legacy of slavery in the spaces we occupy.
On my studio wall, above my desk, is a crumpled photograph cut from an old copy of a now-defunct Philadelphia newspaper. The name at the bottom is John Jones, my maternal great-great grandfather. In the image he is wearing an ill-fitted suit, and his gnarled hands, bony and arthritic, grip a hickory walking stick. His weathered face bears the dignity of a difficult life endured with determination and forbearance. He died at 110 years old, and spent much of his early years harvesting sea island cotton on a South Carolina plantation. Sometimes, when I look into his face, studying the deep-set eyes and unruly tuft of white hair, I can sense him calling across rivers of time, urging me to see him—to make him visible. It is because of that insistent voice, enduring and immutable, that this work has meaning. It is because of the countless others, whose scorned and discounted stories remain untold, that this work is necessary.