Today, the concept of heritage is broader and more far reaching than ever before. Heritage is not only about monuments or beautiful architecture. It is not only just about our identity and our past. But, also includes our politics, our memories, our present complexities, whole urban complexes for which the criteria are no longer just architectural merit. Heritage has wide implications into our lifestyles, our families, our behaviour and interaction with others. Cultural heritage has recently taken the main stage and has been foregrounded in multiple current global discourses such as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the racial injustices through the Black Lives Matter protests.
In this context there is a renewed confrontation of black heritage or heritage connected to blackness and its struggles. The black lives matter protests re-initiated discourses around the alternative narratives of heritage. The recent destruction of statues in England such as the 18th-Century British slave trader Edward Colston, the demand for removal of the British supremacist Cecil Rhodes to the defacement of statues of Christopher Columbus and Confederate leaders in the United States of America has led to critical questions such as:
- Whose heritage is being conserved?
- Why is it being conserved?
- How do we respond to a heritage with conflicted memories?
The traditional representation of heritage is known to have drawn exclusively from the perspective of the elite and reinforces a privileged ideology of heritage. This perspective often focuses on history, nationalism, tangibility, age and aesthetics. It foregrounds monumentality and grand scale tied to aesthetic expert judgment. More than likely, these experts were white, male, middle-class heritage practitioners and architects. As such, this one-dimensional discourse excluded alternative and even competing understandings of heritage that may relate to broader conceptualizations.
Sketches of the Bonaire Slave Houses (created by the author)
I recall a trip I took to the island of Bonaire, a Dutch Caribbean island located off the north coast of South America near the western part of Venezuela. We hired a scooter and roamed around this beautiful island and came across these coral stone slave houses built in 1850. This was 13 years before slavery was abolished in Bonaire. These houses were built for African slaves working on the salt fields and plantations. The entrance was designed so that slaves would crawl and bend into the house and the tiny interior ensured that no slave could stand upright inside the house. Some of these tiny dwellings (some white and some yellow) provided sleeping quarters for up to six people. I remember seeing a couple, likely to be tourists like myself, happily taking selfies. I took pictures as well and although not really knowing the full history of the site as there was only a very basic plaque, I questioned about my own engagement with this heritage. These houses were advertised as part of Bonaire’s heritage and must-sees. But, what is the correct way to respond to a site like this? How do I engage with this heritage in a way that is sensitive to the slaves who lived, died or escaped these houses?
Because of this, there needs to be a reckoning of what we as a society define as heritage. How can we begin to have an open engagement with heritage that has complex elements including an inherently contested nature of difficult past events? Perhaps, the solution lies in a different set of questions.
- What heritage do we want to carry with us into the future?
- What version of heritage matters to us?
Although we can share a common heritage, we have different cultural backgrounds and practices that provide us with a unique perspective. Exploring black heritage begins with an introspective and authentic approach. An approach that doesn’t just accept the narrative that has existed but instead interrogates what that narrative means for oneself and what that narrative should be in the future.
Black Heritage Matters
As a means of creating links to living African heritage by making it visible, assessable, the Aga Khan University Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations and the Zamani Project at the University of Cape Town present the online exhibition “Black Monuments Matter”. The exhibition aims to “sweep away ideas based on racist theories and hopes to contribute to both awareness of African identity and pride of African Heritage.” This exhibition uses digital technologies to display the diversity and richness of African cultures as part of world history through the study of African Monuments; bringing awareness and pride of African roots and contributions to other cultures.
The sites in the exhibition include the Great Zimbabwe ruins in Zimbabwe, the Kua Swahili Ruins in Tanzania, the Great mosque of Djenné in Mali and the Besease Ashanti Shrine in Ghana.