June 29, 2012

Tavis Smiley’s ‘America I AM’ comes to Gantt Center

Tavis Smiley’s traveling exhibit includes more than 200 artifacts relating to African-American history.

“Would America have been America without her Negro people?”

That question, posed by W.E.B. DuBois more than a century ago, echoes in a new exhibition at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.

“America I Am: The African American Imprint” seeks to not only answer DuBois’ question with a resounding “No” but to quantify that answer. The traveling exhibit includes more than 200 artifacts relating to African-American history. Some are as common as photographs, others as lofty as original copies of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Emancipation Proclamation. And then there are the dungeon doors from Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, where Africans were housed before they were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean as slaves – the “doors of no return.”

The exhibition is the brainchild of entrepreneur and television personality Tavis Smiley. Answers have been edited.

Q. What is the genesis of this exhibition?

After the 400th anniversary commemoration of the Jamestown settlement, I started thinking there really are two stories about the founding of America.

One is the story of the immigrant coming through Ellis Island. The other story is the African coming to Jamestown, and the fact that the country was built, in many ways, on the backs of free labor of the Africans who were enslaved. And that story really hasn’t been told the way the immigrant story has. It’s not about telling the story to demonize others and raise ugly and old issues and open old wounds, but it really is to tell the story from the vantage point of the fact that the country simply would not be where it is if not for the contributions of African-Americans.

Q. Why did you feel it was important to include Charlotte?

Obviously, it’s the place to go and be in the Southeast, and we certainly want to be there during the Democratic convention.

Q. In other cities, what’s been the racial makeup of those attending the exhibition?

It’s multiracial, it’s multiethnic, it’s multicultural. They’ll go into all that kind of detail to give me an understanding of who they are and how much they appreciate the exhibit, even though they’re not of African descent.

Q. Is there a single item you are most pleased to have?

The “door of no return.” So many of our ancestors were marched in shackles and chains through these doors as they were stolen from their home and sold into slavery in the Americas and beyond. When they walked through those doors of no return, that was it; they were never coming back home, and millions, of course, died in the middle passage. Those doors are the one item that everybody seems to talk about.

I guess right behind that would be something diametrically different – Prince’s guitar from “Purple Rain.”

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