Vacation, Black History & Cargo Shorts

By Dana Saxon

Recently I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Curaçao . It was strictly a vacation, for the purpose of catching up with friends, distracted only by good food, drinks, and bodies of water. Admittedly, when our car whisked past the Curaçao National Archives, I contemplated finding some time to pay a visit. The contemplation lasted only for a few minutes – until I was likely distracted by the mention of food, drinks, or a body of water.

But even the most relaxed and single-minded travelers can find their way to a good museum. And my friends and I did just that when we added the Kurá Hulanda Museum to our loose agenda.

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The museum advertised an opportunity to learn about the people of Africa and its Diaspora, with a particular focus on the history of African people in Curaçao This type of museum can go several ways, some of which lead visitors through tours of laughable inaccuracies and callous carelessness. There’s also the possibility of finding an historical gem that tells a new, unique, or at least accurate story. And call me a pessimist, but I had my doubts about this museum that was originally opened and funded by a Dutch “collector” in khaki cargo shorts.

Display of USCT soldiers

I ask to speak for my friends when I say we were pleasantly surprised. Having splurged for a tour guide, we were given an interesting view into history that ties together and continues to influence the African Diaspora. The exhibit on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and slavery was more vivid than most, including shackles to hold and a ship replica that brought us to experience the small size and darkness of the lower deck that held Africans captive. With an occasional abrupt change of focus, the museum represented different parts of the world through a wide range of history – even Darwin and Lucy (the oldest human-type bones that were discovered in Ethiopia) got some space. Other than Curaçao, Suriname, Ghana, the U.S. and Ethiopia were most represented. And I was happy to see a section covering struggles for freedom and civil Rights in the U.S., including prominent displays of Black soldiers in the Civil War (U.S.C.T.), Marcus Garvey and the Black Panthers.

Although I remain somewhat skeptical about how the man in cargo shorts came to acquire all of those artifacts and historical treasures (and for that matter, where/how some of those replicas were made), and the room paying homage to the island’s very small Jewish population raised some of our eyebrows (including the tour guide), I was pleased with our visit. I commend the Kurá Hulanda Museum for taking on the challenge of telling a long, complicated, sometimes painful, and always rich history of Black people – though perhaps erring on the side of taking on too much.

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Walking through each of the museum’s themed houses, I appreciated the curators understanding of the connections between the various countries, people, and time periods . And it was even better when our tour guide made a casual, yet powerful mention of what’s been done to “our people.” Indeed, our people.

Now I’m just doing some wondering: what would be the most important exhibits to tell the shared and divergent stories of Africa and its Diaspora? Is it possible to do your story, my story, or our story justice in a museum of limited space? If you had lots of money and some cargo shorts, what would you include in your museum of history?

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