For the past several years I’ve been following two personal paths of discovery in two seemingly unrelated topics. This is a story of how these two paths unexpectedly intersected in a way that had a soul-stirring impact on me.
One of my passion projects is learning how minerals and the metalic elements that they contain have been so fundamental to the building of human society and how so few seem to make this connection. I began photographing minerals due to their obvious eye appeal. The more I learned, the more I realized that had we humans not developed the myriad ways to use minerals in our technology, we would be living in a way that would make the Flintstones look futuristic. Somehow, many in modern society fail to make this basic connection and I determined that I would try to spread this message in a manner that I know best, namely through photography. I have begun creating a series of artworks, which I later photograph, that attempt to show the story visually and hopefully make clear the message of just how dependent human civilization is on minerals and the metallic elements that they contain. In order to find materials for my artwork I often find myself rummaging around antique shops. Here, I often spend inordinate amounts of time and money searching out picture perfect examples of “metallica”.
Another issue that I have been grappling with over the past several years is the relationship between the races, black and white, both historically and in the modern era. This subject became a prominent focus in my psyche rather abruptly seven years ago. Not coincidentally that is when I met the African woman that was to become my wife. At the time, she lived in a high-rise flat outside of Washington D.C. which was populated by about 99% pepper and a few grains of salt, of which I was one. We begin going to a church that had very much the same racial mixture. At the same time, I began listening to “jazz and justice” radio station in DC, as well as other news sources and heard a not-so pretty picture of rascism that shocked me and challenged my beliefs on the subject. Thus, almost overnight, I was forced to deal with race relations at various intimate levels on a daily basis, and in retrospect, these new surroundings, set me on a self-guided mission to see what it is, and was like being black in America. I have been very priveledged that through the friendships that I have formed, dramatic “black history month” presentations at the church, travels to Africa with my wife and race relation discussions that I have hosted, to have gotten at least a vicarious idea of the difficulties faced by African Americans through the times of slavery, segregation, until the present day.
I recently traveled to rural England, Ireland and Wales, I hardly saw any black people so my immediate interest in race relations took a welcome vacation. However, my interest in mining and the metal-human connection was very much alive and took me to Parys mountain in Wales. Here, copper has been mined for over 3000 years, from the Bronze age through World War Two. At a nearby museum I learned that from the 16th to the 19th centuries, much of the copper extracted from Parys mountain, was taken to Birmingham in England and used to make bracelet-like copper or bronze objects known as “manillas”. The copper-bearing manillas were then carried by ship to West Africa, where around 8 to 10 of these was enough to buy a human being. These enslaved people were transported on the same boats from Africa to the Caribbean where they were sold on to cotton and sugar cane plantations. The cotton and sugar produced by these slaves was then carried back to England, thus completing a rather efficient triangle of exploitation which functioned quite nicely for everyone involved except of course the poor slaves. Coming from America, this British version of the slavery story is something that I had never heard. As with many things that I see in museums, the story registered, but not in any profound way. Besides, the horror of it all didn’t have time to sink in before I went to photograph the Parys mountain pit, which I barely managed before the wind and rain forced me to abandon the site.
After Parys mountain,I returned to England and resumed my antique shop metal prospecting. I found myself in a shop in Worchester, where I hit the mother-lode. The proprietor had spend 40 years collecting all manner of metal objects and as my luck would have it , he was trying to liquidate his inventory before closing his shop. I told him about my metal project and he was interested and willing to give me some bargains. Bingo…metal collector’s heaven! I spent hours searching through hundreds of photogenic and historical British metal objects from 250 year old church keys, to things that I had never heard of like a chatelaine, (look it up). My eyes began to tire and my enthusiasm for metals, which normally knows no bounds, starting to show the slightest signs of weakening. It was then that through the 40 years of accumulated metalica, I spied not one, but two Manillas! I thought back to the museum and knew instantly that I had to have them both. When I first held a manilla in my hand I instantly had a visceral reaction. My hair, (what hair I have), stood on end as the reality of what that copper object represented, unexpectedly, touched my deepest soul. It was as if that manilla, sitting in my palm, opened a window through time and the righteous struggles of so many became real to me, in a way that it never had before. So much for my vacation from thoughts of race relations.
Now back in the States, as I write these words, manillas by my side, I can hear the sounds of the slaves at their work, singing their way through the seemingly hopeless and endless oppression, immersed in a struggle that their descendants would finally win.
The manilla is a reminder of how my passions for metals and humanity converged in an unexpected way that has changed me forever. So what we have here is another version of Yogi’s “fork in the road” rule: If you come to two forks in the road you should take them both and hope that they come together in the end, or something like that.
After finishing the above story, I decided that once again, I needed to detach from manillas and the subject of race for a while. To unplug and relax I took a hike on the Appalachain trail and decided to stop at an antique shop near the trailhead. I had been to this place several times but decided to see what new material might be on offer that could be useful for my metals project. While wondering up and down the endless aisles looking for metal objects, I saw something from the corner of my eye, but kept walking. It took a few seconds to sink in. What would a person, looking for metal objects, but wanting to avoid the sticky subject of racial oppresion least want to see? Believe it or not, fresh from Europe and writing about manillas as a symbol of oppression in Britain, I saw nothing less that a metal badge from the KKK! I was shaken, literally and figuratively. Once again, echos from a dark past shook my spirit. I seriously debated whether to buy this token of hate and even called my wife to get her opinion. I decided that the story that I could tell with this piece outweighed my natural inclination to run from it. No sooner had I made the decision to buy the piece in question than the person who sold it to me told me a story of how he witness such an oblect being brandished in the ugliest of ways to intimidate an elderly African American couple some fifty years ago near the site of the present day antique store. The badge, which was awarded to high ranking members, was worn under a suit coat, on a vest, and revealed dramatically as it was to the couple who were peacefully eating their lunch. As much as I feel that I can feel the suffering of the oppressed, I have not been able to fathom what would motivate a member of the KKK to spread the casual, pointless, melanin-based hatred described to me that day. Eerily, the badge was made using copper, as were the manillas and in roughly the same shape. To add to the ominous feeling, when I placed the two together, it was as if they were made to fit!
If you didn’t know what these objects represent, you would say that they are beautiful works of metalic art. We have been warned that beauty is only skin deep and I can’t think of a more fitting example than the manilla and the KKK badge, because what they represent is anything but beautiful. As if there weren’t enough evidence of bad juju contained in these artifacts, I have one more piece of evidence. When I first tried to upload the photo that I took of these two objects together to help illustrate this article on my website, the entire site crashed! I will try again, only because I believe, as has been said, that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. If clan membership is any indication, according to the figures that I see, clan membership stands at roughly 5000 of the estimated 6 million members that it had in its heyday in the 20’s. That’s a reduction of 99.99916 %. Although I am assured that the problem still exists, these surprising figures, if they are correct, give me hope. Another reminder that there is a heightened awareness of these issues struck me this week when I tried to take my family to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and found that there were no tickets available due to the overwhelming popularity of this venue.
As far as paths crossing goes, this story is not without some striking examples. Two different cultures on two different continents design metal objects, in the same shape, made from the same material, which symbolize the same thing, namely racial oppression. Coincidentally, without intention, I stumble on these artifacts continents apart, and it looks like they were made to go together. Ironically, I discovered both the manilla and the KKK badge while wanting to step back from racial issues. However, the universe spoke and I listened and this story is my witness. I keep these momentos of oppression to remind myself, and others, of the history of oppression that they represent. Too bad Yogi isn’t around to sort out all the forks in the road that came together and brought me the serendipidous, intense personal epiphany about such an emotion-laden and topical issue. I can only hope that when it comes to manillas and the KKK , that he was right when he said “the future a’int what it used to be! “