The Amistad Revolt: Memory, Slavery, and the Politics of Identity in the United States and Sierra Leone

By Iyunolu Folayan Osagie | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Sculpting History: African American
Burdens of Memory

Since the 1980s, an increasing number of scholars and performance artists have been using a variety of media to make the story of the Amistad a living memory. Through pamphlets, public lectures, plastic arts, the fine arts, fiction, drama, poetry, film, and even a floating museum (a model of La Amistad at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut), the Amistad is fast becoming a greater presence in public memory.1

In his foreword to Black Mutiny, William Owens captures the reasons why the Amistad story might have meaning in today’s world:

No institution in America has its origins in an event of such dramatic power
as the American Missionary Association and the Amistad story. This is truly
one of the great contemporary myths of the American folk. The myth of the
Amistad would be much easier to live with if it were not historical, if it had
its origins in primordial imagination…. The power of this drama lies in the
symbolic representation of its leading characters and in the heroic dimen-
sions of its staging.2

Indeed, the synchrony between the Amistad narrative and the artistic expression of that narrative has always been apparent. This, in part, explains the use of what I have called the quasi-historical genre, rather than traditional academic history, to memorialize the incident. Influenced by the interdisciplinary theory and practice of cultural studies and performativity, many scholars prefer a dramatized translation of the Amistad events to a disengaged, seemingly objective delivery of their research.3 Owens, for instance, prefers a dramatic retelling to the usual scholarly documentation

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