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