Smiley presents American I Am: The African American Imprint
By Brandon I. Brooks
Sentinel Entertainment Editor
Tavis Smiley sets new scholastic trend with an African American traveling museum exhibition
Tavis Smiley is making history with a traveling museum exhibition titled American I AM: The African American Imprint. The exhibition celebrates nearly 500 years of African American contributions to the nation through artifacts, documents, multimedia, photos and music. The exhibit will be showing at the California Science Center from October 30, 2009 to April 15, 2010.
The four-year touring exhibition premiered this past January at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and recently wrapped-up a tour stop in Atlanta, GA.
“We’ve been to Philadelphia and Atlanta”, Smiley shared with the Sentinel. “In both places record numbers of people are turning out especially in Atlanta where people were standing in line for an hour and a half to get in. So the numbers were great in Philly and great in Atlanta and we are excited that here in our hometown of Los Angeles we are making the third stop of the ten city tour over the next four years.”
The idea for unique exhibition came about a few years back when Tavis Smiley was in Jamestown, Virginia for the 400 year anniversary of the Jamestown Settlement, which is where the first African slaves arrived. Smiley shared with the Sentinel that this is when he started thinking about the story, our story and how it could be told better to the world.
Many Americans know about Ellis Island in New York and the immigrants coming to America making major contributions. But the story of contributions that black folks have made starting over 400 years ago in Jamestown, that story has never really been told the way it ought to be told. So this is when Tavis Smiley first got the idea to do an art exhibit that would travel the country for a few years and really tell our story through items and rare artifacts, story boards and hi technology.
After wresting with idea for sometime Smiley eventually connected with a company called AEI (Arts and Exhibitions International), the same people who did the King Tut exhibit. Smiley with the help of AEI and sponsorship from Wal-Mart put together an advisory board of some of the most respected and highly influential educational scholars such as Dr. Cornel West and Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Smiley then assembled a curatorial team that put the entire exhibit together and here they are now, two and a half years later, with an exhibit that will be traveling the country for four years and visiting ten major cities.
Smiley shared with the Sentinel that there are about three-hundred items in this exhibit. It’s a huge exhibit that spans about 20,000 square-feet with twelve galleries and four theatres. Smiley shared with the Sentinel some of his personal favorites.
The exhibit features exclusive items such as the actual Declaration of Independence, music artist Prince guitar from the movie “Purple Rain”, some of Fredrick Douglas’ clothes, Serena and Venus Williams tennis rackets and awards from major tournaments, W.E.B. Dubois cap and gown as he was the first black to get a PHD from Harvard University, Malcolm X’s personal Koran and hand written journal of when he visited Mecca.
The exhibit also features the arrest card that Rosa Parks had to put her finger prints on when she got arrested for the famous bus incident that led to the world famous boycott, the typewriter that Alex Haley used to type the entire Roots manuscript, Thurgood Marshall’s robe from the Supreme Court and Jackie Robinson’s jersey from playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. All of these items belong to different people and come from different places around the world. Smiley shared with the Sentinel that the items have been loaned to the exhibition so when this exhibition ends three and a half years from now, all items on display will be returned to the rightful owner.
“That’s what makes the exhibit so great is all of these items in one place,” said Smiley. He also shared the fact that the Smithsonian museum is building an African American History Museum similar to Smiley’s traveling exhibition but that the new facility will not be open until 2015 so it’s a must that you and your family come out to see the American I AM: The African American Imprint.
What is really unique about the American I AM: The African American Imprint exhibition is the fact that it does travel. Tavis Smiley even has a promotional super-truck that travels around the country to give people a taste of what the exhibit actually is. “Just a small taste of it so when you walk into the super-truck you get a sense of what the exhibit is all about and of course when people come into the truck, we give them information about where they can actually go see the exhibit,” said Smiley.
“We are now celebrating the first African American President in this country, President Barack Obama. We are celebrating his election and his leadership service and I certainly celebrate that as do most Americans. But it’s important to understand that there is a 400 year back story to President Barack Obama,” Smiley said. “He didn’t just magically get created out of the ether. He didn’t just fall from the heavens. There’s a 400 year back-story that makes this moment, this Barack Obama era possible and if we can celebrate the first Black President, and we are, we can also celebrate the journey that made this moment possible.”
Tavis Smiley is one hundred percent correct. If we are to celebrate Barack Obama, then we must to celebrate the back story that made him possible.
America I AM: The African American Imprint, is a celebration of African American culture and survival. The traveling museum exhibition, tells the story of all that we have had to endure as African Americans, all the contributions we have made, all the challenges we have had to fight and the obstacles we have had to overcome.
The exhibit starts with the slaves arriving in Jamestown. When you get done with this exhibit and you walk two to three hours of this and twenty thousand square feet and all of these items and galleries and theatres, you start with the slaves and end with a black president in the White House. It’s a 400 year poetic journey.
“You can’t really appreciate the fact that we have a black president without understanding what we have endured to get to this place,” said Smiley.
The whole exhibit is built around one question. Dr. W.E.B. Dubois asked the great question. “Would America have been America, without her Negro people?” That’s the question Dubois asked 100 years ago and that is the question that this exhibit is designed to answer.
Smiley shared with the Sentinel, “That when you leave this exhibit, there will be no doubt in your mind, black, white, red, brown or yellow, there will be no doubt in your mind, that the country we now live in and that we celebrate, all though we have a lot of work to do to make America a better country, this place we call America simply would not exist were it not for the contributions of African Americans. 400 years worth and this exhibit tells that story.”