Sunday, September 21, 2008
The Meaning of Amistad
I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.
-from Invictus by William Ernest Henley
Everyone wants their moment in the sun, but sometimes one has to ask if it is really worth it. Especially if your shining moment means you have to step over someone else. Particularly if the time you’ve chosen to stand in the spotlight takes place on a replica of a slave ship when a fellow visitor has fallen ill.
I was aboard the Amistad at the National Harbor, where man's (continued) inhumanity to man played out in historical memory and contemporary lack of courtesy. Amistad, a replica of the slave ship La Amistad, is touring the world and docking and educating people as it goes. The word amistad is Spanish for friendship. The original Amistad was not intended to carry slaves as it did and was the site of a well-known 1839 slave revolt. This revolt was the subject of the 1997 movie, also called Amistad. The tour is sponsored by a non-profit that wants to promote cultural understanding.
The ship is small and only a certain number of visitors could be on it at once. Even fewer visitors were allowed to go below deck. It was down there that a woman started to sweat profusely and became ill. She ended up sitting on the floor and vomiting.
Meanwhile, another visitor was asking people to move out the way so she could get pictures of herself at various spots. Even when the women became ill and ship personnel came to her aid in those tiny below deck quarters, the photo shoot continued. She was oblivious to the woman’s plight and was solely concerned with getting a good shot. As they cleared people from below and made them return to the upper portions of the ship, the woman, seemingly unconcerned to all that went on around her, cajoled a crew member about how he was supposed to be in place to take pictures of her with her camera.
It’d be great if this was story where someone was overcome because the stench of slavery and the collective spiritual memory of how our ancestors suffered. But it’s not. I heard the woman diagnose her swooning as the combined result of waiting in a long line in the hot sun to get on the ship and the heat in the small, cramped quarters below deck.