Mar 23, 2017
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African Amer Museum Opens—Just in Time!
by Doniphan Blair
The African American Museum, in the nation's capital, under round-the-clock construction a couple of months ago in order to open under the Obama Administration. photo: courtesy AP
LOTS OF MAGNIFICENT MUSEUM ACTION
these days, from Oakland’s stunning “
” to Bruce Conner at the SF MOMA (see
), but most spectacularly in Washington DC, where the
National Museum of African American History and Culture
just opened on September 24th—and not a moment too soon.
Indeed, it was perfect timing, given the turmoil of Trump’s race baiting and the tragic police killings, but also those who feel we’re in a race relations race to the bottom. Seeking to reassure those folks in the first words of his speech consecrating the museum, President Barack Obama said:
“James Baldwin once wrote, ‘For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.’” He even repeated the sentence, as the author of the Gilgamesh legend liked to do, to make sure his audience totally AND absolutely got it.
Of course, that audience was also standing before the marvel of the new museum, modeled on a Yoruba tribal crown and covered with luxurious filigree, borrowed from the architecture of New Orleans, the most liberal of the South’s slave centers, where many slaves had Sundays “off” and could make music or business in Congo Square.
Some slaves even escaped to the Louisiana swamps to join tri-racial villages (black, white, native), which also sprang up in Southern Florida, the Eastern Carolinas and elsewhere, part of America’s little-reported but massive interracial legacy, embodied to an acme by President Obama.
President Obama making an important "race speech" at the opening of the finally-finished African American Museum. photo: courtesy J. Whitaker
“We're not a burden on America, or a stain on America, or an object of pity or charity for America,” continued Obama, in arguably his most important reflections on race since his “Reverend Wright Speech” (2007), which converted a crotchety, old African-American preacher into a typical American type, whom Obama could no more rebuke than his beloved (but sometimes similarly crotchety) white grandparents.
In fact, his main point, repeated in a number of ways, was “We're America.”
Although the NMAAHC was established by his presidential predecessor, George W. Bush, who also preceded him on dais addressing the crowd, and it derived from decades of lobbying by Georgia Congressperson John Lewis and others, it was tailor-made for Obama, a crowning cultural achievement after seven-and-half years of strenuous political and economic toil.
The leader of the free world is, of course, inherently, a premier cultural figure but Obama is a bit extra. Not only is he the first black president, he is the fourth youngest and one of hippest and funniest, speaking eloquently about Prince after his passing and giving as good as he got with comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Zach Galifianakis on their TV shows. Moreover, Obama is the leading spokesperson, arguably in history, for miscegenation, bi-racialism and radical multiculturalism.
To highlight progress in this regard, which some fear is deeply flawed, if not altogether ersatz, Obama singled out one of the African American Museum’s 37,000 artifacts, a stone from a platform where men, women and children had been sold for centuries but where, a century ago, a brass label had been affixed identifying it as where President Andrew Jackson once stood to make a speech.
Josh Whitaker, left, with his mother, Gina, and brother, Justice, in front of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall. photo: J. Whitaker
Now retitled to tell the whole story in the new museum, this was a revolution, Obama explained. A reexamined history “helps us better understand the lives, yes, of the President, but also the slave,” he said, “the industrialist, but also the porter; the keeper of the status quo, but also of the activist seeking to overthrow that status quo.”
Another artifact came to mind, when I asked my neighbor Josh Whitaker, a 40-year-old West Oakland artist, who was in attendance, what struck him most at the museum:
“Frederick Douglas’s cane! Dude, that shit was sick, completely engraved with characters and scenes!”
Moreover, “Barack’s speech was amazing," he enthused. "There was probably ten to fifteen thousand people on the Washington Memorial lawn and about three thousand on the actual lawn of the building—we were looking on Jumbotrons.”
“I am the son of a black hippie and a white hippie—Martin Luther King’s dream,” noted Josh by way of explaining how he happened to fly to Washington with his white mother, Gina, and his brother, Justice, a journalist and filmmaker. Their African-American father was a Vietnam veteran who became a peace-lover and then a therapist.
(By the way, cineSOURCE's style sheet hyphenates ethnicities, like African-American or Hungarian-French-Jewish-American, but the NAAMCH doesn't, perhaps to emphasize the equality of African and American.)
“My mother wanted to take us because she was always an activist,” he elaborated, going on to explain that Gina had been captivated by yet another artifact.
“Here is a shot of my mother looking at the pillow sack,” Josh said, flipping through his phone photos. “This story was the reason she wanted to bring us to the opening: a pillow sack.”
“A woman who was a slave was being sold to an owner and torn from her daughter—as happened often,” he elaborated. “She put some pecans and other things in this sack, gave it to her daughter and said, ‘If I don’t see you again, always keep this case to remember me.’”
“This pillow case was handed down, all the generations, to the family who donated it to the Smithsonian. It is embroidered ‘My Great Grandmother Rose’—a touching story that inspired my mom to go see the museum, to see the piece in person.”
The African American Museum also features changing exhibitions, the current one is on Frederick Carlton "Carl" Lewis (1961-), the American track and field star, who won 10 Olympic medals. photo: courtesy AP
And so it came to be: a stone, a cane and a cloth sack triangulating a president, an artist and a mother of biracial kids, summoning ancient spirits to conjure a completely new view of an understandably difficult history.
“There’s is just so much,” Josh told me, when we met in his spacious live-in studio, listening to Bob Dylan, who had just won the Nobel prize for literature. “I felt like I had read a book, a history lesson that I never learned in school. Every black kid and every white kid needs to go there!“
“A lot of people that I have sat with, they don’t embrace their Americanism—outside of their hot water and their Whole Foods,” Josh continued. “There is a lot of resistance and hesitancy for contemporary activists, organizers, interest groups to honor and embrace their Americanism, because of the legacy of America’s politics and economy, the free labor that has gone on.”
“That’s the American story that this museum tells,” Obama said in his speech, as if responding to Josh directly. It is “one of suffering and delight; one of fear but also of hope; of wandering in the wilderness and then seeing out on the horizon a glimmer of the Promised Land.”
“This is for not only people of color but people on both sides, Americans in general,” Josh insisted.
A 1898 shot of African-American Buffalo soldiers, feared as Indian fighters but who also married Latina as well as Indian women. photo: courtesy NAAMHC
Again Obama agreed: “The story told here doesn’t just belong to black Americans, it belongs to all Americans—for the African-American experience has been shaped just as much by Europeans and Asians and Native Americans and Latinos. We have informed each other. We are polyglot, a stew."
“It is a glorious story, the one that's told here. It is complicated and it is messy,” according to Obama. “It is full of contradictions, as all great stories are, as Shakespeare is, as Scripture is.”
“To me the experience was very healthy,” Josh concluded. “Realizing that there is something in this African American Museum that represents the truth behind a lot of the conversation that it is difficult to have among American, white and black particularly—but which it is necessary to have.”
“This, to me, represents a place where you can fill your brain with ammunition for that conversation. They didn’t pull any punches with the raw facts. It was very candid with the truth.”
Of the museums 37,000 objects, the range is ridiculous: a “Give Enough, Reparations Now” placard, fashioned by an unknown protester in 2000, or music producer J. Dilla’s sampler, which Josh also enjoyed. Each item has a cubicle, some smaller than others, starting at the bottom, in the basement, with a mound of sugar and a cauldron.
There a few sets of shackles from before 1860, made from cast iron, although Josh said there didn’t seem to be a display where people were congregating for a good cry.
Conversely, there’s an incredible 1898 shot of the African-American Troop A of the Ninth U.S. Cavalry. Notoriously good Indian-fighters, and called Buffalo Soldiers, probably due to their beards and "natural look," they settled across the West, after their US military service, often marrying Indian or Latina women, and living in the multicultural hamlets which also emerged across the West, where race was more fluid and personal relations-based than in the East, not to mention the South.
“Yes, African Americans have felt the cold weight of shackles and the stinging lash of the field whip,” Obama continued, dropping the “we,” perhaps because his African family didn’t have that exact experience, although the first person plural soon returns.
A pair of cast iron shackles from pre-1960, arguably the central, yet hard-to-focus-on symbol of the current situation. photo: courtesy NAAMHC
“But we’ve also dared to run north, and sing songs from Harriet Tubman’s hymnal. We’ve buttoned up our Union Blues to join the fight for our freedom. We’ve railed against injustice for decade upon decade—a lifetime of struggle, and progress, and enlightenment that we see etched in Frederick Douglass’s mighty, leonine gaze [and cane]."
Obama also mentioned the lunch counter protests, which Josh said the museum had turned into an incredible interactive piece: you sit at an actual lunch counter and then choose to follow different stories, like a demonstration, a sit-in or a freedom ride.
Obama got his first big applause when talking about the “Tuskegee airmen soaring the skies not just to beat a dictator, but to reaffirm the promise of our democracy, to remind us that all of us are created equal.”
“There is room for improvement [of the museum], of course” noted Josh, “and I am sure there will be critics. But for me, being biracial, it was important. It was important for my mother, who is Italian and Jewish, to bring me and experience it with me and my brother so we can have the conversation.”
Admittedly, “[a] museum alone will not alleviate poverty in every inner city or every rural hamlet,” observed Obama. “It won't eliminate gun violence from all our neighborhoods, or immediately ensure that justice is always colorblind… Those things are up to us, the decisions and choices we make. It requires speaking out, and organizing, and voting.”
“But what this museum does show us is that even in the face of oppression, even in the face of unimaginable difficulty, America has moved forward.” Hence, although “we should not be surprised that not all the healing is done,” Obama added, “we shouldn’t despair that it’s not all solved [either].”
The mixed African-Native-America family, which Josh Whitaker noticed at the National Native American Museum, shows America's long, somewhat-denied tradition of miscegenation. photo: courtesy J. Whitaker
Obama ended with what many would call a typical Kumbaya moment but which can also be considered the new creed of radical multiculturalism:
“And so hopefully this museum can help us talk to each other. And more importantly, listen to each other. And most importantly, see each other. Black and white and Latino and Native American and Asian American—see how our stories are bound together. And bound together with women in America, and workers in America, and entrepreneurs in America, and LGBT Americans.”
As the NAAMHC takes its place of pride alongside the 18 other Smithsonian museums, including the National Museum of the American Indian, it serves as a potent symbol of the African-American passage from slave to citizen in the 19th century, respected musicians to sports stars and entrepreneurs in the 20th, and to president and many other officials and professionals in the 21st. While many hands helped along the way, the final step was orchestrated by Barack Obama and stands as a loud shout-out to African-Americans but also bi-racials, like Josh Whitaker and his brother Justice, as well as radical multiculturalists everywhere.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Oct 21, 2016 - 01:22 PM