Research Magazine

Auburn Research
Spring/Summer 2022
The Design of Diaspora
Auburn Interior Design Professors Examine Structure as Symbolic Artifact

From homes to hospitals, the design of a building is essential to its purpose. Instead of holding families or health care, however, some buildings are reminders of history’s most oppressive moments.

Taneshia W. Albert, assistant professor, and Lindsay Tan, associate professor, in the College of Human Sciences’ interior design program study the House of Slaves on Gorée Island as a symbolic artifact of spirituality, slavery and displacement.

Gorée Island, Senegal, was a central slave outlet to the Americas, supplying an estimated one-third of all enslaved people before the 1600s. The House of Slaves was built on the island to facilitate the capture, holding and departure of those enslaved people. That purpose is evident in its design, which contains rooms for holding, punishment cells, a room specifically for captured children and “The Door of No Return” – the threshold exiting the building onto slave ships bound for the Americas.

“The Door of No Return is talked about a lot among the Black community,” Albert said. “The Slave House on Gorée Island is one of the major slave ports along the west African coast but it’s the only one that’s referred to by an architectural feature, and that’s the door. It’s such a great intersection to discuss spirituality and symbology within the interior and architectural design space, so we took on the challenge.”

Albert and Tan argue the architecture of the space shows not only the history of the dehumanization and brutalization of   African people, but is an enduring marker of  cultural trauma.

In 2017, Albert visited the House of Slaves and recounted the experience in “Through the House of Slaves: A memorial to the origins of the Black diaspora.” Today, the house is a spiritual mecca in which Black tourists visit the origins of their ancestors’ displacement.

In the second installment of their research series, “The Slave House as Symbolic Artifact,” published in a special edition of the Journal of Interior Design focused on spirituality, Albert and Tan created a visual essay to bring the reader through the House of Slaves. Through the combined use of Albert’s personal story and photographs of the structure, the essay aims to evoke emotion in the reader and translate how the building is imbued with cultural trauma to an academic audience.

Albert and Tan hope those who view the House of Slaves see the design was meant to hold “Black bodies, not Black humanity.”

“The point is not to call out, but to call in people to this conversation,” Albert said. “We created this narrative to take the reader on the same emotional journey, so they can feel the same fear and anxiety that I felt, and translating these images into a story can create the same angst in the reader that I had while going through the house.”

Tan, a symbologist, assisted in constructing the narrative by exploring the meanings and motivations behind the photographs with Albert.

“When you take photographs as evidence or data for your research, things like the perspective from which you’ve taken the photograph and the connection between the photographer and the subject are important,” Tan said. “The photographer is always taking a subjective photo. What you choose to take a photograph of, how you take it and the meaning you give to that photo, those things are all analyzed when you’re doing this kind of work. That’s how we began to delve into the narrative.”

The research team — Albert, who is Black, and Tan, who is white — have been close friends for many years. Despite their long history, this research project forced them to have previously undiscussed, and often uncomfortable, conversations about race, slavery and privilege.

“We are choosing to embrace really difficult concepts in our relationship to be more effective researchers,” Tan said. “It was hard for me because we were telling a story about how, generationally speaking, my people imprisoned her people. So we had to discuss how we were going to approach this, what it means to be an advocate or an ally and how much race outside of our relationship played a role, but also how we as two people would handle these difficult conversations. We don’t always agree on the interpretations, but that’s what makes the research interesting and truly collaborative.”

Tan and Albert said this research clears further avenues to explore historic structures as living museums with stories to tell. By publishing Albert’s autoethnographic account of the House of Slaves, this research series aims to create space for Black voices and stories, while providing insight into how white researchers can conduct work that does not appropriate the Black experience.

“It’s not just a Black story, it’s a story of our shared history as Americans,” Albert said. “That is one of our goals, for people to understand that it is our history. While it’s my voice and I’m leading the conversation, the point is that it is supported by and in conjunction with Lindsay’s voice. We hope this becomes not just this narrative about diaspora, but also a representation of the hard conversations that we have to have to really come closer together as a nation.”

“We created this narrative to take the reader on the same emotional journey, so they can feel the same fear and anxiety that I felt, and translating these images into a story can create the same angst in the reader that I had while going through the house.”

– Taneshia W. Albert

Last updated: June 02, 2022