Museum stories
Bonnie Greer: three journeys

In these days of undoing, I remember three journeys.

The first was a lifetime ago.

I was a young child. Three years old, I think.

I remember the smell of cold fried chicken mixed with the smell of cardboard. The chicken was part of the meal that our mother had prepared for the family. Fried chicken in a shoe box. I could not know then that we were on a train from our home in Chicago, heading down South.

In those days, in the early 1950s, the train would have been racially segregated. We would have been seated, by law and custom, in a crowded section of the train. We would not have been allowed to eat in the dining car.

Postcard of Chicago station. c. 1915.

We were going to rural Mississippi, the most racially segregated section of the entire United States.

This was where my father’s beloved mother, my grandmother lived. In a town called ‘Money’ on the Mississippi Delta. Blues country.

I remember her yard, full of dust and chickens picking the ground. And her bedroom, the dresser crowded with beautiful things. I really loved those chickens. I really loved those beautiful things.

Photograph of Emmett Till.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-104052.

A few years later, a young boy from our part of Chicago went to visit his grandmother in Money, too. But he never came back. His name was Emmet Till and his brutal murder at the hands of local white men and their subsequent acquittal helped spark the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement.

I was too young and sheltered when all this happened to know.

But what I did know about, even at three, was the fresh air and the space and the sky of Mississippi. So different from the overcrowded conditions of our life in the big city.  

I did not know that my family and I had been confined to a ghetto.

I did not know that my entire childhood was being defined by the question of whether I and my father and my mother and my gran and my brothers and my sisters were actually full human beings. 

The second  journey took place when I was a teen. I had been sent, for the summer, to a posh, all-white suburb north of Chicago. I was there to de-segregate the local school. This was the 1960s and efforts were being made by people of goodwill to give my life a future.

The train that I took home after school was filled with maids going back to where I lived. Going home to their own kids. Once they all smiled at me and one of the ladies asked what I was  doing  going to school ‘up there’. I did not know. All that I knew, then, was that America was not my home. I had been told by my father that we had come, long ago ‘from Africa’. That we had been ‘taken away’ and made into slaves. That one day we would return. In Africa, our lives would be better because we would have our inheritance.  Our kingdoms. Our language. Our clothing. Our music. Our gods.

A mother with her daughter on the steps of the Supreme Court following the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. 19 November 1954.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-104052.

The third journey in my memory now was to the former slave fortress at Elmina, on the Atlantic Coast of Ghana, over two decades ago.

I was in the country to teach at the film school, and the day after my course was over, I and the class were to be taken on a day trip to the Coast.

Also in my hotel were my fellow African Americans, decked out for the journey.

I recall a man wearing the insignia of one African nation on his shirt lapel. And another on his belt. He, like all of us from the US, had created a kind of country of the mind and of the heart and of the will. And we were ‘back home’.

Photograph of Elmina castle, Ghana. Around 1905.

I cannot recall how I missed the tour bus and ended up with a European photographer in a taxi. The heat made him very uncomfortable and disagreeable and he only had conversation for his Leica. 

Our first stop was the compound of the Ashatene. The photographer wanted to take photos.

I quickly distanced myself from him and made my own way around.

Suddenly there was a revelation like a bolt of lightning: I noticed him sweating. Profusely. And wiping his face and fanning himself with his hat.  

It was then that I thought to myself that, in the main, Europeans would have suffered here in this place, in this area. Would they have come nevertheless? And if they did not… then who took me to the coast? To Elmina? To the boats? Into The Void to my unwilling transformation.

Photograph of Elmina Castle, Ghana. Photo by Mary S R Sinclair. 1936.

After we drove to the coast, I walked into Elmina Castle.

My fellow African Americans from the hotel were there crying and singing.

I was not.

I saw the slave caves stark and white and cold and precise.  I saw on an upper level the photo of an Asantehene exiled by the British. I saw where the governor of the castle lived. I imagined that I saw a crucifix on the wall there.

After that, I climbed the steps to the top of the castle and looked at the deep, dark ocean.

Plan and cross-section of the slave ship ‘Brookes’ of Liverpool, 1789. Woodcut.

I think that it was there that I knew that if I had any native land, it was the nation forged on the slave ship. I am a citizen of  ‘The Boat’. Created in the Middle Passage that it took. And at the places that it docked.

I consider myself part of a people and a nation that I call: Meta Africa.

Kara Walker (b. 1969), no world, 2010. Print. © Kara Walker.

When the Director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, asked me, a former Trustee, if I would like to return and do something at the Museum, I said yes.

The result of a series of conversations that we had, that we are still having, is the idea of reclamation as a sign of our time. We call the project ‘The Era Of Reclamation’.

We, all of us, want to take something back; have something back. What that is differs from person to person; from community to community; from nation to nation.

And in these days, it might just simply be that we want back the lives we had before the pandemic.

Maybe it is our human connection that, above all, we want back, that we need back right now. This includes our ancient connections, as well as the whole and full and complex truth about them. And what better arena for this journey, this conversation, this debate,  than a global museum. The greatest of them.

Panelists at the first ‘Era Of Reclamation’ event at the British Museum, 10 January 2020.
Left to right: Professor Olivette Otele PhD, Bristol University, and Vice President of the Royal Historical Society; Bonnie Greer: Dr Miranda Lowe, Natural History Museum, London; Dr Valika Smeuthers, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The conversations, debates, performances and art that have emerged, and will emerge from ‘The Era Of Reclamation’ will contribute to a kind of marker for our time.

Here, inside the British Museum, a theatre of human connection, reclamation can find the seeds that can begin the process of an even deeper, more profound engagement. 

We need now to see and know that we are the same species, with the same stories. 

And that we have always been in search of what we ultimately are seeking to reclaim: ourselves.

I hope that the ‘Era Of Reclamation’ can become a signpost on the long journey to truth, reconciliation, justice, peace. And healing.

My posts on the British Museum’s blog will document that journey. 

Read more about the Era of Reclamation in Bonnie’s blog here.

Bonnie Greer’s Audible podcast ‘In Search of Black History’ is free for 30 days, find out more and download episodes here.