Fragments Tell a Story of Pain and Pride
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
PHILADELPHIA — By now the question that frames a new $14 million exhibition opening on Thursday at the National Constitution Center here is one that shouldn’t have to be asked and should have already been fully answered. It comes from the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, to whom the first gallery in this large exhibition is devoted — the only black intellectual or writer to get such attention: “Would America have been America without her Negro people?”
This show, which ranges over 13,000 square feet and will continue a 10-city, 4-year tour after it leaves here in May, answers Du Bois with a ringing affirmation of black centrality. It isn’t just that blacks in America have made important contributions to a country that in significant numbers forcibly absorbed African slaves and forcibly resisted absorbing their descendants, but that the history of America and the history of America’s blacks are inseparable. They are so intertwined as to become aspects of a single identity in which neither strand can be considered in isolation. “America,” the exhibition says in its title, “I Am.”
It is astonishing to think that a half-century ago such an idea would have seemed alien to much historical interpretation and would have also been posed with a mixture of anxious aggression. This transformation in historical understanding was one of the most important of the 20th century. Now, it is so mainstream that this show, “America I Am: The African American Imprint,” is actually a commercial enterprise created by the television personality and author Tavis Smiley along with Arts and Exhibitions International (whose last great success was the 2007 touring King Tut exhibition). The Cincinnati Museum Center, with which the show’s executive producer, John Fleming, is associated, was also involved.
This commercial aspect also means that there is some emphasis on spectacle, creating gallery environments to evoke the black experience in the United States, complete with sound effects and lighting. There is much focus too on the overall outline rather than analytic details. That is both the show’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
It is a popular historical survey, never touching down too deeply and keeping the narrative in constant view: we pass through the actual doors of Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, through which captive slaves also passed, before the displayed shackles and brands were used by their European and American buyers. Then comes a survey of how inextricably knit into the Southern economy (and much of the Northern as well) these slaves became, and the painful ironies of the founders’ vision of freedom that left slavery as a footnoted exception to their powerful pronouncement of inalienable rights.
The overall narrative is so familiar it risks becoming commonplace, touching on the antislavery movement, the Civil War, the failures of Reconstruction, the contributions of black American culture, the civil rights movement, and an upbeat three-screen film in which black and white American identities intertwine.
The importance of black churches is rightly singled out for more attention than usual, but it is not in the large sweep of this exhibition that we feel the story’s importance, but in the smaller objects on display. These include the abolitionist’s defensive cudgel used by the “league of Massachusetts Freemen” when confronted with slave hunters, a rare American flag used by a “black brigade” in Cincinnati during the Civil War, porcelain figurines of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom, separate bathroom signs from 1927 labeled “White Ladies” and “Colored Women,” a “Bill of Sale” certifying that friends had purchased Frederick Douglass’s freedom for $711.66 in 1846, a model of a small screaming black baby whose wide-open red mouth was meant to be used as an ash tray, miniature Ku Klux Klan figures that look like chessmen, the door key and stool from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birmingham jail cell.
In these objects, in the sheet music, costumes, films and books, in the glimpses of trial and triumph, there is an epic American story to be told. For museums the climax will come when the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in Washington, scheduled for 2015. What is missing here, though, is the complexity of the struggle, some sense of the political movements at work in different periods, and even some sense of how those debates have evolved in the present day.
Pick any particular subject and you find broad strokes rather than subtle details. The slave trade is summarized in a single map, the Emancipation Proclamation’s focus on the Confederate states alone is not fully explained, the immense failure of Reconstruction in the South is not explored. Many objects, including some I’ve mentioned, receive only cursory identification, so their place of origin or date is left unclear. And in contemporary decades so much has happened that the simple tale told here isn’t enough. Just putting Malcolm X’s Koran on display doesn’t inform the viewer about what issues were being debated in the 1960s in the black civil rights movement, or illuminate the political rage of that era, or provide some idea of the pain and of the stakes.
The exhibition gives just one glimpse of that rage, early in the show, in which a jagged American flag is illuminated in blood-red light, draped in chains and images of protest, under which a quotation from Paul Robeson can be read. But it displays the latent anger of the presenters rather than something about its subject; the exhibition would be more powerful if it explored that rage rather than so uncharacteristically depicting it.
And perhaps, too, the show’s design could have been more taut: Why was Du Bois given the honorific centrality of the opening gallery? How did his interpretations evolve? And what impact does he still have?
What the exhibition does present is a basic primer, which will, perhaps, serve as a popular introduction. The problem is that most of the history here is so well known in outline that it could serve as the foundation for a show rather than its main point, a frame for explanation rather than the object of attention. At any rate, though, this show succeeds in its original purpose. It makes the question, “Would America have been America without her Negro people?” seem superfluous.
“America I Am: The African American Imprint” opens on Thursday and runs through May 3 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia; (215) 409-6700, americaiam.org and constitutioncenter.org.