Would America have been America without her Negro people? That question posed more than 100 years ago by black scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois is one that organizers expect the America I AM traveling exhibit will answer for many who view it. The exhibit, which talk show host Tavis Smiley conceived after a 2007 visit to Jamestown, Va., during the 400th anniversary of its founding, opens in Charlotte at the Gantt Center on June 30.
The exhibit chronicles nearly 500 years of African American contributions to the United States. It includes more than 200 artifacts, including contemporary items and truly historical ones such as the 400-year-old wooden gateway from Ghana, through which thousands of shackled slaves passed on their way to bondage in the Americas.
Smiley, named one of Time magazines 100 most influential people in the world in 2009, is also conducting a nationwide tour with Princeton University professor Cornel West to spotlight the plight of the poor. The two have criticized President Barack Obama and Congress for not paying enough attention to the poor.
Recently, Smiley talked with associate editor Fannie Flono. Here are excerpts from that interview.
Q. Are there any ties between this exhibit and the poverty tour you have been doing nationwide? Does one inform the other?
A. Its important for all Americans, especially African Americans, who are catching the disproportionate pain that this Great Recession has unleashed to understand that we have been through far worse and survived. So in many ways, this exhibit is about hope springing eternal. Its about realizing we are survivors. When you can survive slavery, segregation and racism and discrimination, and still as (poet) Maya Angelou would say, and still rise, and still help elect an African American president, and continue to make these grand contributions, when you can love this country, not because of but in spite of, and still make these contributions DuBois asked a powerful question: Would America be America without its Negro people? The answer is absolutely not. [African Americans have] fought in every war. We have loved and served this country, in spite of not because of.
Now, Im going to be politically incorrect, but even with a black man in the White House, we have to hold him accountable. We have to remain vigilant .
In this exhibit is a whole gallery on the civil rights movement, and what youre reminded of is that Martin (Luther King) and so many others gave their lives for us. Martin gave his life for poor people and here we are now poverty hasnt been worse in this country. The numbers are clear. One out of two Americans Im not talking about black people one out of two Americans is either in or near poverty. Half the country is either in poverty or low income or a paycheck or two away.
The only way we get out of this is that we have to hold all of our leaders the White House, the Congress accountable. And for those African Americans who think that somehow Im hating on President Obama to hold him accountable to push him into his greatness to tell him that we want him to be a transformative president and not just a transactional president this is a part of our tradition.
So its not about the president. Its about the presidency. You have to challenge and hold accountable the presidency, the Congress. So I hope that when people go to the exhibit, they will be reminded that if King were here today, hed be talking about poverty, hed be talking about wars, hed be reminding us that budgets are moral documents. The exhibit doesnt get political in that way, but when looked at with a critical eye, one gets reminded that we survived worse but we have to keep holding people accountable to our best interests.
Q. What was the link for you between the founding of Jamestown and this exhibit?
There are really two stories of the founding of America one is the Ellis Island story and the other is Jamestown. We really dont know the story of these Africans coming to this country and all that theyve been up against, and what African Americans have contributed. An exhibition that would start with Africans arriving in Jamestown, and going all the way up [to] the election of President Barack Obama, gives Americans a chance to really wrestle with and better understand what these contributions have been and meant.
Q. What has been the reaction?
A. Weve had a multicultural, multiethnic and multiracial turnout to this exhibit. Im always inundated by people whove been blown away and humbled by the exhibit. Its interesting. Theres so much history, our history, that white Americans dont know. There are things that white Americans come in contact and make use of everyday simple things like peanut butter and George Washington Carver (the black scientist who invented it) to Garrett Morgan and the traffic lightwas invented by a black man. By the same token, there is so much of our history that black folk are unaware of. Its really interesting to see whether youre white, black or what have you the empowerment that this information gives to people when they come in contact with it. They get a chance to see the jail cell that Dr. King sat in Birmingham, Rosa Parks fingerprint arrest card, or Princes guitar from Purple Rain or hand-written lyrics by (rapper) Tupac.
Q. Was one of the aims of including items like Tupacs lyrics to draw in young people?
A. Absolutely. This exhibit is for persons 8-80. There has never been an exhibit that pulls together all of this African American history this American history in one place. President Obama a few weeks back just broke ground on the new Smithsonian museum, the African American Museum of History and Culture, thats about to open in D.C. in another few years. So there is going to finally be an African American museum in the nations capital where a lot of stuff like this will be housed permanently. But until that opens, there has not been any opportunity for African Americans or anyone else to see this rich history in one space.
Q. What is your favorite artifact?
A. The Doors of No Return. You see these doors through which our ancestors were marched through in shackles and chains for the last time, never to return to their homeland. To see these doors, its a humbling, its a moving, its a heart wrenching experience.