African American Museum Shares Stark, Moving Story Of a People's History
From slavery to the Million Man March, images and artifacts chronicle 400 years of black Americans' struggles, successes
DETROIT — On first approach, the 80-foot-long slave ship at the center of the world's largest African American history museum, recently opened in Detroit, appears a subtle understatement.
The abstract vessel, formed by simple rows of black wooden panels, seems to whisper the names of thousands of historic slave ships that are inscribed in fine print on its sides. Only upon closer scrutiny do some of the names - Hope, Assurance, Desire - scream out with irony.
The thick wooden panels also partly obscure the ship's hold. Only by crouching can the visitor gain a full, startling view: 50 tightly packed figures of shackled slaves - young, searching, listless, and so lifelike that they almost breathe.
"This is definitely an eye-opener," says Samilya Young, whose grandmother's family were slaves. "It brings it to life," says Miss Young, one of the more than 50,000 people who have flocked to the new Museum of African American History (MAAH) since it opened last month.
Indeed, the genius of the museum's core exhibit, "Of the People: the African American Experience," is to draw the viewer in and deliver a stark, powerful message. Painful and yet inspiring, it is a message that moves people, says museum president Kimberly Camp.
"Often museums are a numbing experience," Ms. Camp says as she strolls through the museum's airy rotunda dressed in a flowing African tunic. "In the past week here, I've had people crying on my shoulder. If a museum does that," she says, "it doesn't get any better."
Symbol of Detroit renaissance
Many view the unique, $38-million, 120,000-square-foot museum as a long overdue testimonial to both the struggles and achievements of black Americans. Five years in the making, the museum is also the latest symbol of the renaissance of Detroit, a city that is 80 percent black and has long stagnated economically.
The museum seeks to play an aggressive educational role beyond holding exhibits in its three galleries. It boasts a 317-seat theater, three classrooms, a bookstore, and a state-of-the-art research library designed for a broad array of educational programs.
The overarching goal of the museum is to tell the story of African-American history, one that is frequently "omitted" and overlooked, Camp says. The core exhibit achieves this with a sweeping historical overview pinned down by displays of individual accomplishments and cultural contributions that help define what is African-American.
Covering 400 years of black American history, the exhibit contains eight historical "stations" focused on key periods. These range from the journey of West Africans to America known as the middle passage, to the civil rights movement, and into the 1990s.
The exhibit is aided by language that is both clear and empathetic. Often, it is most compelling when it allows the raw history to speak for itself, through images and maps, quotations, laws, and brief statements of events.
A station labeled "The Crime" contains drawings of slave ships, photographs of forts used to hold captured Africans before the passage, and original chains. It also includes quotations from traders such as a Dutch governor in West Africa, William Bosman, who wrote in 1705 that the slave trade was "barbarous" but that "by mere necessity it must go on."
Another station, "Survival of the Spirit," is a simple, arched wall. Excerpts of brutal laws on slavery are written on tabs that extend from the wall. In 1705, one law authorized "any person whatsoever" to kill runaway slaves. Others in the 1800s prohibited blacks from holding religious meetings, carrying firearms, or inciting rebellion.
These laws are juxtaposed with historical acts of rebellion by blacks, which are printed on the wall in red. One reads "1856. Margaret Garner kills her daughter, rather than let her be seized by slave catchers. She tells a judge that she herself would prefer to die than be enslaved again."
"Freedom and Betrayal" contains excerpts of Jim Crow laws from the early to mid-1900s that forcibly segregated blacks and whites in marriage, school, streetcars, libraries, waiting rooms, barbershops, and even at the circus. "It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together any game of cards or dice, dominoes or checkers," stated a 1930 law. Small photographs of lynchings, invisible from afar, appear on horizontal tabs close to the wall.
"I just don't see how a person could do this to another person and think they were doing right," says Joe Chambers, a retired Detroit auto worker, shaking his head. He said the exhibit reminded him of his own suffering under Jim Crow laws in Mississippi in the 1940s.
Uplifting displays, too
Such disturbing facts are interspersed throughout the exhibit with more uplifting imagery and artifacts: the dress worn in 1957 by Carlotta Walls of Little Rock, Ark., the day she braved racist mobs to enter Central High School; astronaut Mae Jemison's flight suit; and a banner carried by a group of men who walked from Philadelphia to Washington along an Underground Railroad route in 1995 to attend the Million Man March.
"The African Memory" is a bright tableau of color photographs, maps, and words of African origin such as "jazz." "We are vessels of speech," reads a bold caption. "We are repositories which harbor secrets many years old."
The themes of remembrance and inspiration are entwined perhaps most dramatically in "Genealogy," a 36-foot-wide terrazzo design of human figures by Detroit artist Hubert Massey in the floor of the museum's rotunda. The design celebrates knowledge and faith while drawing a connection between slaves and today's young black victims of urban violence.
"One guy is resting his arm on the chains, but he is always striving forward, reaching his other arm in the air," Massey explains.
Dozens of Massey's Detroit high school students circle the design, talking. "It kind of wakes you up," says Lawrence Jackson, a ninth-grader. His friend, Fred Moss, agrees: "It gives you a sense of pride to know about your past."