August 10, 2012

Gantt exhibit ‘America I AM’ is personal, sweeping

Focused on contributions African-Americans made in four areas – cultural, economic, spiritual and socio-political – the exhibit is both personal and sweeping, offering more than 200 artifacts telling the 500-year story of blacks in the New World.

The answer is an emphatic “No!”

The question was posed more than a century ago by scholar W.E.B. Du Bois and resounds throughout the marvelous “America I AM –The African American Imprint” exhibit at the Gantt Center uptown.

“Would America have been American without her Negro people?” Du Bois asked.

The reply – turned into a ringing affirmative “I AM” that has biblical and political overtones – offers as evidence more than 200 artifacts telling the 500-year story of blacks in the New World. Focused on contributions made in four areas – cultural, economic, spiritual and socio-political – the exhibit is both personal and sweeping, one that stops to linger and moves like a mighty stream.

Put together by broadcaster Tavis Smiley and the Cincinnati Museum Center, “America I AM” offers an immersive experience through an installation that has transformed the Gantt Center.

Artifacts are not simply hung on the wall or put in cases. They appear in architectural spaces that enhance their meaning – a dungeon for slavery, a church for spirituality, a jail cell for civil rights. Footprints on the floor move you from area to area.

The point is not to just transmit knowledge but to convey experience – and emotion. The exhibit includes both sights and sounds, and appeals to the ear as well as the eye, the heart as well as the mind.

“America I AM” demonstrates the incredible power objects have to spark associations and connect us with meaning. Several stood out for me:

A wooden banjo with a gourd-like body, an African instrument that has meant so much to American musical traditions such as bluegrass; a beautiful washstand made by Thomas Day, a free man in North Carolina; the bill of sale for Archy, an 11-year-old boy sold in Union County; the black frock coat of former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass; a copy of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, signed by Abraham Lincoln; a sparkly red dress worn by singer Etta James (“At Last”).

Sounds are imaginatively employed: the agonizing wails of the slave ship, the fife and drum of the Civil War, the freedom songs of the 1960s. At one delightful juncture, I heard a spiritual sung, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reading his letter from a Birmingham jail and James Brown singing “I Got You.”

The exhibit examines some long-held ideas. One is that Africans arrived without culture, a view allied to the equally wrong-headed notion that somehow they were better off in America, even as slaves.

Shown at the very beginning are African sculptures such as a Yoruba Epa mask displaying sophisticated inventiveness and beauty. Such works inspired Pablo Picasso – and Charlotte’s own Romare Bearden.

Another false idea: that blacks kidnapped and brought to America were passive victims. Several slave rebellions get mention, not just the relatively well-known revolt of Nat Turner in Virginia but also one led by Denmark Vesey in Charleston.

The economic underpinning of slavery jumps out from this piece of information: Of the first five presidents, four were slaveholders from Virginia whose wealth was based on tobacco production. Also made clear is how Northern businessmen benefitted from the slave trade.

Shackles and triumph

The exhibit has shortcomings. It barely mentions that Africans themselves, as slavers, participated in the slave trade. It describes how African-Americans fought in the American Revolution, but doesn’t give sufficient prominence to the fact that far more fought for the British because they were promised freedom.

The exhibit goes out of its way to emphasize the patriotism of blacks and their sense of identity as Americans, surely worth underlining, considering that in today’s politics, questions abound about who is American.

The Civil Rights section seems cramped. But it turned personal for me and will for anyone who lived through the ’60s. I was moved to see again the flickering black-and-white TV images of the march on Selma and other seminal events.

Alex Haley’s portable typewriter, on which he wrote “Roots,” is on view. In the 1970s, the television miniseries made from the popular book gained wide viewership and comment. Many said they hadn’t known about slavery, didn’t realize how bad it was.

Getting personal

This exhibit, displaying shackles and a diagram of how human beings were packed on a slave ship, brings the viewer closer to that experience.

This is especially the case with the “Doors of No Return.” Taken from a coastal fortress in Africa through which some of the millions enslaved passed on their way to the ships and the dreaded Middle Passage across the Atlantic, they become symbolic as each viewer goes through them.

That is not to say this exhibit is a downer. With the pain it examines comes optimism and a sense of a triumph – for African-Americans and for our country.

It’s a truism that Americans don’t know their own history. That means there’s only one credible response to the extraordinary opportunity afforded by “America I AM.”

See it.

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