It's no easy task to encompass the history of a race of people with varying cultures, languages and religions who were forced to create a new culture and community in a foreign land under the brutality of slavery. But the National Museum of African American History and Culture has taken on the task and dug into it with both feet.
While there undoubtedly will be folks who are dissatisfied (including yours truly, regarding a hero or pioneer who was given short shrift), the key is to remember that this is only the beginning. This is a history museum that intentionally ties mass incarceration and police brutality to slavery, features exhibits like that of the late producer J. Dilla's MPC, and begins the sweeping history of African Americans 200 years before they were forcibly brought to American shores.
The museum’s companion book, Dream a World Anew, provides more comprehensive anecdotes and history that complement the exhibits. A host of authors and scholars, including Farah Jasmine Griffin, William C. Rhoden and Elaine Nichols, contribute to the history and stories in the book, offering many unsung heroes and untold stories a new place in history.
Kinshasha Holman Conwill, the deputy director of the museum, spoke to The Root about Dream a World Anew and about the making of the museum, which is set to open its doors to the public on Saturday, Sept. 24.
The Root: This is a huge undertaking to encompass this kind of history. How did you manage to synthesize it and make it manageable?
Kinshasha Holman Conwill: In retrospect, I respect the process even more. We had a great group of scholars, a scholarly advisory committee, chaired by the great John Hope Franklin. We wrestled with how do we deal with enslavement—what part of our story will be that peculiar institution? Some people in the public were done with slavery. Others thought that's what it should mostly be about. After hours and hours of discussion, we distilled those thoughts.
We also visited with colleagues on campuses from Yale to Howard to Brown. By then we began to have a curatorial presence and a staff with folks from around the country with expertise in art history and 19th-century American history. And we had right here at the Smithsonian terrific colleagues at places like [the National Museum of] American History, where Lonnie Bunch, our director, worked for many years.
We asked the question, how do people learn in the 21st century and how do people do that in a museum? We had those myriad conversations, and our own point of view came up with the broad brushes of what we planned to do and what you see in the book—three sections: history, community and culture.
TR: Is there anything that you have decided to do differently from what ordinary museums do in terms of having it being interactive?
KHC: When we look at things as diverse as Harriet Tubman’s shawl or the Jim Crow-era train car, that speaks volumes about enslavement and abolitionism and segregation. The film about Angola prison—we're not going to tell you what to think about incarceration in the United States, but when you see this film, it’s going to be hard for you to have strong feelings about the legacy of slavery in the mass incarceration of mostly African-American men.
We try to create a dialogue with our audience that uses objects, uses multimedia, that uses interactive technology to help them get deeper into the historical story and the story of contemporary life. In certain parts of the exhibition, you get to tell your story. You get to add your story. That's the ongoing narrative.
TR: When you say “telling your story,” is it like an oral-history section where you’re recording your story?
KHC: We have that, too, in terms of a formal oral history, but there are also more-informal moments when you can add your own story. It can be written in some galleries. There are also ways you can do these memories and thoughts through the apps we are developing and testing. We're looking at virtual reality.
We also have very formal oral histories that are part of the assets of the museum, and they come from the civil rights movement. Like Judge Robert Carter, one of the colleagues of Thurgood Marshall. People like the family of the late Ralph Abernathy. Many names that people may not have heard of before.
Mildred Bond Roxborough, who worked with Medgar Evers registering voters. She tells this extraordinary story of traveling with him through the back roads of Mississippi, and after traveling with him and after a long day of sitting in the car with him, taking her shoes off and feeling something cold on the floor, and realizing it was a shotgun. That's poignant for a myriad of reasons—that they needed that protection. But also fast-forward that you know Medgar Evers was gunned down in his driveway in Mississippi because of his work.
TR: What are some of the artifacts that you have collected that stand out?
KHC: In Chicago we collected a broach that belonged to Madam C.J. Walker that she gave to her top salespeople. We were blessed with many donations, including the black-fashion-museum collection out of New York and objects from the family of William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist. Chuck Berry's Cadillac and other objects came directly from him.
Harriet Tubman's shawl, the hymnal that she carried with her, the knife and fork that she used. There are photos of her funeral. You've seen pictures of the shawl draped around her, but when you see it in person, you just get chills.
TR: How do the stories and history in the book make the connection to the present day?
KHC: We have this very sacred object—Emmett Till's casket, a chilling and haunting artifact. And you think about how others have compared his killing to Tamir Rice and other African-American lives that have been taken. At this moment in history, people are looking back at the antecedents of activism. Young activists in the civil rights movement, young activists in the modern movement, had similar attitudes, had a similar fearlessness in standing up to authority.
TR: How did you acquire his coffin?
KHC: It was his family. Remember, there was a terrible scandal about the cemetery where young Emmett was buried. They found that some workers had dug up graves and resold the plot. It was horrific. Within that investigation, they found that one of the caskets that had been horribly maintained was Emmett Till's.
The guidelines are that if a person's remains are disinterred, you can’t bury them again in the same casket. This was one of our most difficult decisions because we didn't want to replicate the dishonor that had been meted [out] on this family when this grave was desecrated. One of our colleagues came up with this extraordinary program that was almost like a version of another funeral in terms of having it in the same church where he was buried, a remembrance with the family and the community to mark that this was coming to the Smithsonian.
It’s very private and subtly placed in our museum. We don't want to be sensational. It’s a tough thing to see because we will have some of the photographs that were infamous and later famous that were published in Jet, as Ms. Till-Mobley said she wanted her son to have an open casket so people could see what they had done to him.