America I Am: Because African American History Is Your History

"Mommy, I don't want to be in this room anymore." My six year-old's eyes stared at a glass case containing a white hood and robe.

"You're scared?" I asked. His head nodded yes in response so I said, "Just imagine how it must've been to see real men wearing those white hoods and robes, riding up to your house and setting a cross on fire in your front lawn or burning down your entire neighborhood."

His eyes widened and I realized I was scaring my child even more. Part of me wanted him to be scared, wanted him to feel what his ancestors felt so that he'd know what a sacred legacy he comes from - one of bravery despite terrifying circumstances. I wanted him to see why we have the responsibility to let our own lives be examples of justice and racial unity. But he's six and there's a time and a place for everything, so I distracted him by pointing out something less frightening. "Hey look, baby, here's the original charter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. That's over 100 years old and did you know your daddy's dad was an Alpha?"

Where were we that had both a Klansman's robes and the Alpha Phi Alpha charter in the same room? The America I Am: The African American Imprint exhibit.

Presented by Tavis Smiley, the exhibit asks and answers a central question that comes from the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, "Would America have been America without her Negro people?" It features hundreds of artifacts that serve as examples of the nobility, creativity, innovation and perseverance that have characterized over 500 years of African American history.

Going to the exhibit has been on my to-do list, so I was fortunate to be invited to a special Blogger Day on Saturday. We headed to the exhibit's Los Angeles home, the California Science Center and found 12 different gallery rooms which explore the economic, spiritual, cultural and socio-political impact of African-Americans on this nation.

We saw the original "Doors of No Return" from the Ghanian slave-trading fort Cape Coast Castle - how heart breaking to have to explain to your kids that when Africans were captured, they'd step through those doors and onto a slave ship, never to see their homeland again.

We saw original whips that slaves were beaten with, furniture made by slaves and the utensils they farmed with and cooked with. There was even a doll from the 1700s made by a slave for his or her daughter. The boys especially loved all the history and artifacts from hundreds of years of African American soldiers fighting for the country they loved.

I never thought I'd see Frederick Douglass' clothes, or his bill of sale or his free pass letter signed by Abraham Lincoln. Never thought I'd see a pair of Gregory Hines' tap shoes, one of Marian Anderson's dresses, or Thurgood Marshall's morning suit. Definitely never thought I'd see the space suit astronaut Charles Bolden wore or a diploma from Madame C.J. Walker's beauty college. But all those things and more are at the exhibit.

What made it even more special was that I was got to experience it all with my kids. The docents were quite knowledgeable and made a special effort to engage the boys, but it was an emotional and important thing for me to able to talk with them about what they were seeing and what it meant.

The only disappointing thing? The lack of racial diversity in the exhibit's visitors. On the one hand, I loved seeing so many people of African descent coming out to learn and experience our history. On the other, our history is also the history of America so there's no reason people of other backgrounds can't also come experience such an inspiring, and sometimes heart-wrenching, educational exhibit.

Speaking of education, in case you're looking for ways to incorporate African American history into your classroom, the America I Am site also has some great resources for teachers (lesson plans and activity sheets).

The exhibit is here in Los Angeles for the next couple of months so if you're in this city, I can't say enough how much this exhibit is a must-see no matter what your background. If you're not here, it's going to be traveling across the country over the next four years so make sure you pay a visit. We can all stand to learn more about how America would not be America without the contributions of African Americans.

photo: flickr Okinawa Soba


nick said…
That exhibition sounds very interesting - and shocking. When Jenny and I were in Chicago, we visited the DuSable Museum of African American History (which you must know) and that was very educational. I can never quite grasp the sheer malevolence and inhumanity of racist attitudes wherever they appear.

As it happens, I'm rather belatedly reading Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom. I knew a lot about apartheid already but this adds many more disgusting details of how it operated.
Liz Dwyer said…
I've never read Mandela's book. I need to do that. DuSable is a great museum. I haven't been over there in years. What really struck me with this exhibit is just how much this history really is American history. So often it only gets a sidebar in textbooks but this is our history.
Sarah Auerswald said…
The exhibit is so powerful, I was so moved. I highly recommend everyone see it -- and I hope it travels around the country. I took my kids and I know they were moved by it as well.
Nichole Extraordinary said…
It is just too much! Really. I have a six year old daughter, and growing up an African American at a series of schools where I was lucky to be one of 2 black kids in a classroom has made me super sensitive to the burden of the legacy of slavery. Fast forward. So now I'm a mom and I am very protective of my daughter and her innocent happiness.

This year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. day and black history month have been really hard on me and my daughter. A few weeks ago my little girl comes home from school and tells me how she watched a video about Dr. King Jr. and how unfairly people were treated. The sadness in her eyes was unbearable. Just last night, she was near tears as she told me that she's glad she was born after slavery because black people were whipped until their skin came off and some even died.

Gracious, she's six!!! Can't we wait until she's at least 10 to really get into all of this? There is just too much pain in the legacy of slavery for small children!

I'm not sure which is best way to proceed, but I think I will have to just compound her pain by teaching her (gently) about the unspeakably horrible things groups of people have done to each other around the world throughout history. The pain will be greater, but hopefully less personal and I’ll explain it as a warning against the danger of evil (what else can I call it?) that lurks within the human disposition.

None of this is to say that I don't support the museum exhibit. I do 100%. I even support taking your children if you're ready to have the conversations that must follow. I just can't do it to my child and I'm not ready for the school system to do it for me.

There are those who would say that not addressing slavery head on is like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand (an old wives tale, I know). To them I would say that talking in depth about the horrors of the legacy of slavery instead of briefly discussing that really bad things happened, is like showing my daughter pictures depicting child abuse, child pornography, and child sex slaves. The danger is real and must be warned against, but a full blow by blow account of what happens is unnecessary for young children.

A simple "don't talk to strangers, or you might get kidnapped," will do.

For young children, I believe Black history month should be about shining examples of our society with a brief mention of slavery that becomes more of a discussion as the child gets older.

Unrelated: My husband and I are opening a licensed family day care (childcare) called "The Extraordinary Place". I graduated from UC Berkeley and my husband is a graduate of Claremont McKenna College. We are located in the Leimert Park area of Los Angeles, CA 90043. We provide fun, educational and nurturing child care for children ages 6 weeks to 6 years. If you or someone you know is looking for quality educational childcare, please ask them to give us a call at (323) 309-6584 and ask for Nichole. Thank you!
Anonymous said…
Yikes! I agree with Nichole who thought that this was all too much for a child. I think kids need some years of childhood and that confronting them with (explicit!!) acts of hate and murder are just inappropriate. Certainly we don't need to lie to them, but let's try to STRENGTHEN them with knowledge rather than hurt and scare them.

The PRIDE should come before the FEAR.

Also, let's give them some room to grow up with a little less baggage than we have. We need to respect our forefathers and our history. Nevetheless I believe that one way of doing so is teaching our children of our ancestors' ACCOMPLISHMENTS and that people of all colors and creeds can stand up for themselves, their peoples, their beliefs and for others. We don't have to put as much emphasis in the brutal side of history (and current events) until the children are older and are asking more themselves. They need to feel safe and our forefathers would have wanted that for their own children.

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