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Contemporary Monuments to the Slave Past: Race, Memorialization, Public Space, and Civic Engagement investigates how we visualize, interpret, and engage the slave past through contemporary monuments created for public spaces. I use the term “slave past” broadly to include the transatlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage, enslavement, resistance, emancipation, and freedom. From Mississippi to Illinois to Rhode Island, governments (local, county, state), colleges and universities, individuals, communities, and artists are in difficult conversations about how to acknowledge the painful history and legacy of the slave past and its visual representation.

My research is predicated on the idea that the memorialization of the slave past is plural and multi-vocal. I examine monuments in the South, Midwest, and Northeast that tell a diverse story about our contemporary engagement with the slave past. The exhibits on Omeka consider a range of content including monuments related to specific themes such as the Underground Railroad, groups of similar monuments such as those dedicated to the United States Colored Troops, and particular memorial landscapes in cities such as Alexandria, Virginia.

At the heart of my project is a consideration of the interwoven nature of the social, the historical, and the spatial. In each digital case study, I explore questions about race, memorialization, public space, and civic engagement: How are individuals, communities, and institutions engaged with the slave past? What histories are being told in memorials? How is the slave past understood spatially in the present? What are the processes by which monuments to the slave past are commissioned? Who are the stakeholders? What visual vocabularies are artists engaging? How does race inflect memorialization? How is the black body to be made visible in public space when it is often invisible and/or policed in daily life? What is the relationship of the monument to its location, landscape, environment, and geography? What role do monuments play in the life of communities and in the lives of individual citizens? Can monuments to the slave past prompt civic engagement?

Written by Renée Ater