African-American’s influence on American culture and society has been repetitively diluted, distorted, and put aside in text books and general knowledge. There have been a few attempts through books, films, and museums to compensate for this, but only those who seek it out benefit from it. The most recent endeavor for this subject is Tavis Smiley’s America I Am – The African-American Imprint. A 4 year-long tour exhibit dedicated to the African-American story.
When I first read the news about the exhibits premiere, I was excited and praising Tavis Smiley. Critics seemed fascinated and the photographs were impressive. Many notable celebrities visited the exhibit and gave multiple accolades. I was happy to hear its set arrival in Washington, DC at a time when I would still be in town.
On the 23rd of April, I went to the exhibit in Washington, DC at the National Geographic Museum. The exhibit starts within a hallway with large pictures aligning both walls. You begin in the present and travel backwards to the past, passing images of Oprah, Michael Jackson, Colin Powell, Bill Cosby, Angela Davis, Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, etc. Then we enter another room with a large mural of black men dressed as conquistadors. The story begins explaining Africans contribution to the Spanish explorations. As we walk through the exhibit, there are several artifacts, quotes, and anecdotes to depict the era. It moves on to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, including the “door of no return” from Elmina Castle in Ghana, West Africa. Then there are references to the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Underground Railroad. The Civil War ends part one of the exhibit. Cross a hallway and enter part two, beginning with baseball and advertisements of the era. The first African-American sorority and fraternity are showcased with their colors and celebrity members. One placard mentions the Harlem Renaissance. Then we move to religion. There is a documentary showing on one wall within a miniature church depicting the origin and influence of the Baptist Church. There is one case dedicated to the journal Malcolm X wrote while he was in Mecca. The next room is dedicated to the military, with another documentary depicting all the important figures in the American military beginning in the Civil War to Colin Powell. Then we transition to the Civil Rights Movement. Within one room, this movement is showcased through the Million Man March, Rosa Parks, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There are notable relics from this era, including a sweatshirt from the Million Man March, the bench Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat on when he was in jail as well as the chair he sat on when he was in court, and the finger print card Rosa Parks had to fill when she was arrested. Following is the second to last room, dedicated to celebrities. Muhammad Ali’s boxing gown, Smokey Robinson’s suit, Stevie Wonder’s harmonica, Prince’s guitar from the Super Bowl, and Gregory Hines’ tap shoes are the main attractions in this room. The last room is devoted to a large screen with a concluding video to wrap up the essence of the exhibit.
So that was the exhibit in a nutshell. I am sure it took a lot of time and effort to get a hold of the heirlooms and information, which was authentic and impressive. However, there are a few factors that were lacking. The historical part up until the civil war was splendid. The first era that I felt was not showcased enough was the Harlem Renaissance. The music, the fashion, the business, and the influence that came out of that period of time deserves more than one placard. People like Josephine Baker, Marcus Garvey, Duke Ellington, and W.E.B. DuBois could have been mentioned. Places like The Cotton Club and The Apollo Theater could have been featured. Maybe they could not find anyone to donate something for it. Second, the Civil Rights Movement deserves a much bigger room. Where were the Black Panthers? Where was Angela Davis or Malcolm X? It is hard for me to believe that funding or donations were the difficulty here. Did they intentionally choose to omit these key players? It was quite disappointing. Third, the celebrity room. Not sure if this was a last-minute idea, but it was organized all wrong. Motown had one case with LP covers of Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, and Jackson 5. I think Motown deserves an entire room. There should have been a placard and picture of Berry Gordy and how he came up with the idea and built such an influential empire. Maybe showcase the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, and the Jackson 5 with video clips. James Brown’s glitter suit was within a case of mannequins with Smokey Robinson and Teddy Pendergrass. I think James Brown deserves a room, but due to the current economy we could have at least given him two cases. He wasn’t just the Godfather of Soul or the creator of funk music. This man was an activist and an intellectual. His business tactics were revolutionary at the time. Why was there no mention of how he would sell his own tickets so that the theater wouldn’t rip him off? He also did a lot for education for the less fortunate in this country and helped and inspired many youths to finish school. Why was there no mention of the iconic TV show “Soul Train” and the impact it made on the black community and this country at large? Where was Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra or the Isley Brothers or the Staple Singers? There was a note card size placard that was dedicated to Michael Jackson. The King of Pop is mentioned in tiny letters next to the one case dedicated to Motown to mention that the whistle in the case is the one Michael used when he was 8 years old and he later grew up to be a great entertainer. Really!? Not even a silver glove or a hat or a proper picture. I did find out later that the exhibit had an MJ memorial within the display when it was in Los Angeles, which is nice. However, his death should not be the only reason to bring up his name and once time has passed forget about him. Do we not consider his achievements – including breaking barriers, raising the bar, and truly bringing people of all nationalities together to enjoy the same music – important or worth mentioning? The only writer in the room was Alex Haley, the author of Roots. Where was Maya Angelou or Alice Walker or James Baldwin? Why was there no segment dedicated to Black Cinema or Theater? Not only Shaft and Cleopatra Jones, but also Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis or Sidney Poitier and Eartha Kitt. Where was Harry Belafonte or Dorothy Dandridge? Bottom line, this room needs some work.
So, what does this mean? There has been talk over the years of certain states wanting to change history text books in how they depict the slave trade or the civil rights movement. Throughout my education I have sat through many history and english classes where deviations from the truth were part of the curriculum. How does this exhibit fit within this scenario? Did it provide a full and accurate depiction of the African-American story? I would vote no. It was a commendable attempt, but there is a lot of room for improvement. I hope this endeavor is the beginning of an ongoing project to achieve a genuine and just portrayal of the African-American imprint. Young people – of all ethnicities – will never know the greatness of the human race if we continue to sponsor diluted history.