Footsteps echo on replicated stone as you enter a close, dim tunnel. Ahead, a wanly lit vestibule beckons, but this is where most visitors stop cold, trapped between rough planks festooned with heavy iron locks and blackened by the centuries.
The Doors of No Return.
Visitors must make a conscious decision to pass through and experience America's other great migration story. Taken from Ghana's Cape Coast Castle, one of the largest dungeons for holding kidnapped and doomed Africans prior to enslavement, the doors are brutally simplistic, and the jumping off point for the rest of America I Am: The African American Imprint.
"It's hot here in Charlotte. And when people get a chance to see how inspiring and amazing and unsettling this exhibit is, it's gonna be hot for a while." So says Tavis Smiley, creator of the traveling exhibition. Smiley was on hand for a pre-opening press event June 29 at the Harvey Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. The author and political commentator looked a bit worse for wear after an early morning flight from the West Coast as he presented to a room of writers and journalists from the top floor of the Gantt.
"It was only 88 in L.A., so I didn't bring it with me," Smiley joked, referring to the 100-degree temperatures in Charlotte. He traveled with a light entourage: Gantt president and CEO David Taylor, assistant curator Carlton Farmer, handler Raymond Ross and several executives from Arts and Exhibitions International (AEI), the company that designed the exhibit. AEI has created other high-profile traveling shows, including 2007's King Tut exhibit, which broke U.S. attendance records.
The problem with museums, especially when it comes to the spiritual and cultural artifacts of a people, is that the objects are rarely housed in institutions controlled by those people. Rather, they are displayed in the treasure houses of conquerors, divorced from context and power.
Such is not the case with America I Am. The Gantt Center took extraordinary steps to respect and contextualize the display, which aims to illustrate the ways in which African Americans produced, influenced and changed American culture. Gantt staffers called on a Yoruba spiritualist for advice on how to consecrate items in the collection, especially the original copy of the 13th Amendment. The yellowed document, recorded on plain lined paper, officially outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States. Each item affected people's lives, either publicly — such as the amendment — or privately, like the fine lady's toiletry set, consisting of a silver-backed comb, brush, mirror and a dainty but sturdy whip.
"It was important to acknowledge the spirits of our ancestors," said a high-ranking employee who works closely with exhibitions and who, as part of the Yoruba ceremony, poured libation and led prayers over the collection.
SMILEY SAID he had an epiphany in 2008, while attending the 400th commemoration of the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia, but he knew he needed help. "The Ellis Island immigrant story is etched on the American psyche. We even know the quote: 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,'" Smiley said. "But the breadth and depth of our story had not been told."
He pulled together an advisory board of academics and art world luminaries, including Henry Louis Gates Jr.; Cornel West; Howard Dodson of the Schomburg Center; and Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum of Harlem. Then the curation team set about finding artifacts to tell the story. Led by John Fleming, director emeritus of Cincinnati Museum Center, and Fath Ruffins, curator for the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, the show has some pretty lofty expectations to fill.
America I Am takes up the Gantt's entire 10,000-square-foot exhibit space with more than 300 artifacts, photographs and mixed media. Much of the stuff appears mundane, until illuminated by context: a typewriter which Alex Haley lugged around Gambia as he worked on Roots; a striking black rag doll made by a woman named Emmaline, who raised 14 children for her captors but left no record of having children of her own; a diary opened to show the cramped but neat penmanship of Malcolm X upon his return from Mecca.
The exhibit is divided into 12 vignettes illustrating black influence in eras of U.S. history. By far, the most powerful are situated early on. "Would America have been America without her Negro people?" The famed quote by W.E.B. Du Bois literally hangs over the heads of visitors as they approach an array of artifacts showcasing the advanced artistry and technological skill of 16th century West Africa. But between the Old World and the New World stand the Doors of No Return.
The doors evoke difficult emotions. "I still don't have language to describe how I felt, standing in front of those doors" for the first time, Smiley said.
Gantt docent Toni Baker-Tyson agreed. During her training session, in which museum volunteers are educated on new exhibits in order to lead visitor tours, she was overcome by the powerful feelings that particular exhibit raised. "I was astonished and emotionally drained by the time I got done. Going through the Doors of No Return, knowing [my ancestors] were going on ships and wouldn't come back — it was overwhelming, mind-boggling. All those pieces were not replicas. I've gone to different museums, but I'd never seen anything like that."
Seeing her tears, another volunteer asked if she was OK. Baker-Tyson replied, "Yeah. There's just a lot of history in here."
The dungeon motif is reinforced by a rust-colored grate situated high up on the wall. You might miss it, if not for a low lullaby, broken bits of languages, sobs and the continuous rustle of chains spilling from the vent. The recording is played on a loop, but this bit of staging allows the mind to fill in the blanks of unseen horrors. Coffles and a branding iron — implements of the trade — hang on the wall, but you may be too unnerved to linger long over the explanatory labels.
To exit the room, visitors must walk down a wooden gangplank toward a wall-sized map of slave ship trade routes, where exhibit-goers are faced with a surprising fact: The vast majority of captive Africans did not come to the U.S. Their captors instead sold most of them into slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. Different sources vary on the actual numbers, but according to America I Am's calculations, only a small fraction, just more than half a million, made it to U.S. shores.
A sailor's chest painted with the image of a chained African is dated 1853 — a stark reminder that although the U.S. outlawed international slave trading in 1808, the practice continued almost up until the start of the Civil War. Garish red light bathes a blown-up diagram of a vessel packed to the gills with human cargo. It's the final note in the origin story; henceforth, the exhibit focuses on life in America for a peculiar people.
THE OTHER GALLERIES walk through African Americans' economic, cultural, socio-political and spiritual influences, but most don't weave together sound, information and visual impact quite as effectively as the first one. The timeline can be muddled in spots, and some groupings are awkward (dancer Katherine Dunham's dress from the 1940s is situated near a collection of racist advertising and grotesques from the turn of the 20th century). But that, too, makes a point. American history is not a straight and noble line; it's messy, full of contradictions and warring ideals.
Four of the first five presidents were wealthy planters from Virginia, a plaque informs museum visitors. Riches reaped from unpaid, forced labor afforded them the leisure to think, debate and write about democracy. Frederick Douglass, the most famous abolitionist of all time, had to have a free pass signed by Abraham Lincoln himself to ensure safe travel through Union states. The Negro Traveler, a neat little magazine published in 1945 to help African Americans find friendly restaurants, hotels and resorts, is overshadowed by a huge "Whites Only" railroad waiting room sign.
At times, populating the exhibit has been easier said than done. Modern pop culture items, such as Stevie Wonder's harmonica, Prince's purple glyph-shaped guitar from the 2007 Super Bowl half-time show and Bootsy Collins' star-spangled intergalactic get-up were all donated directly by the stars themselves. But finding the older items has been a process Farmer described as akin to History Detectives.
"Most of the artifacts are on loan from other museums," Farmer said, "some only for six months to a year." Beginning half a year out, he starts looking for replacements, networking with museum colleagues, national organizations, cultural centers, sometimes even private collectors in regions where important events took place. Farmer, an academic type with glasses and a quick laugh, said working on the collection has yielded "some pretty unique road trips."
Farmer, who is white, also has a bit of a quibble with folks who might describe the collection as African-American history. "It's American history, the story of America. The unique thing about American history is that it doesn't exist unless you're also talking about minority history; America is a whole bunch of minority histories smashed together to create a new thing."
AMERICA I AM premiered at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Jan. 15, 2009, and has traveled to Philadelphia, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Atlanta. Charlotte is the last stop in the Southeast before the exhibit rounds out its final year in New York and Chicago. The Gantt Center is the only African-American cultural institution to host. "The primary reason we didn't go to more African-American museums is because most of these items are on loan from them," Smiley said during the opening press conference. "Also, most African-American museums are not big enough to house the exhibit."
At a total of 25,000 square feet, the exhibition's scope is vast, so it's no wonder it's often been housed in convention centers. The Gantt Center has given over the entirety of its collection space, which is less than half that of the full exhibit. Locally, Smiley promised, "We've displayed only the best of the best. We had to choose the top-notch artifacts."
Charlotte is an important host for other reasons as well, namely, the upcoming Democratic National Convention and the renomination of President Barack Obama. Exhibit organizers are banking on delegates, press and out-of-towners from across the country patronizing the museum while here. Despite that aspiration, there is a disconcerting lack of display space on President Obama. One photograph and a few seconds of video are all the space devoted to the first black president. Ryan Schaub, preparator at the Union Station museum in Kansas City, Mo., the exhibition's previous stop, said there was not much Obama memorabilia there, either. "There was a mention of Obama in the video, and a photograph. That was all for the exhibit."
That is partly because the exhibit came together before the 2008 election, Farmer said. "The major storyline was already set." When pressed on the fact that pieces are loaned out and added to the collection all the time, he revealed that the exhibit can only get what's available. "In Philadelphia, Obama left the Race Speech on the podium and we used that in the exhibit at the National Constitution Center. But then we had to give it back.
"There is a bit of reluctance among museum people to show too much in the present; we're much more comfortable with the past," Farmer admitted. "There were a few discussions back and forth, but we'd love to get something in. It hasn't worked out yet, but we hope to get something toward the end of the tour."
Raymond Ross, Smiley's special projects coordinator, said they are astonished at the level of support from the Charlotte region.
"We couldn't be happier," Ross said. "Fifty people from Charleston chartered a bus for Saturday's opening." Smiley's group visited several area churches, including Mount Carmel Baptist, New Life, Community and Friendship Missionary Baptist to personally invite the congregations to the exhibit.
Smiley said that for the past three years, crowds have been very multicultural, and he hopes that will continue in Charlotte. "Atlanta saw the largest turnout, but L.A. got over 100,000 people too. You can't get over 100,000 people in L.A. pulling in only black folks — there aren't that many of us there. So I hope everyone comes, visits, situates themselves within the narrative and tries to understand the other's sacrifice in America. I suspect the Gantt might see more white folks for this than they've ever seen."
Farmer also has a message for white Charlotteans: It's your history, too. "Any nation has its low points, and there are definitely some points where you think to yourself, 'If I were back 200 years ago, what would my role be here?' People are afraid to confront hard truths about themselves and their country, but it's not a bad thing to ask yourself and discuss it with your family, or the people in the exhibit next to you that you don't really know. You've gotta know your history."
Q&A with Tavis Smiley
America was born in Jamestown, Va., when the English established this country's first settlement there in the early 1600s and soon after brought ships filled with Africans to slave in the area's tobacco and rice fields. It was during Jamestown's 400th anniversary that TV host and author Tavis Smiley had a vision for a massive exhibition complete with hundreds of items associated with African-American culture in the United States.
America I Am: The African American Imprint has been touring ever since Barack Obama's inaugural year as the country's first black president. The exhibit opened at Charlotte's Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture on June 30. CL sat down to talk with Smiley about the exhibit, Charlotte and President Obama.
Creative Loafing: What made you want to do this kind of nontraditional history of African Americans?
Tavis Smiley: I just started thinking about how the story could be told in a more rich, a more lively, a more vibrant way to really get the country to understand where we as a people started from and what we've been able to do from 1619 – when slaves arrived — up until now.
You've said W.E.B. Du Bois' famous quote — "Would America have been America without her Negro people?" — inspired you. How so?
This country just simply wouldn't exist if it were not for contributions of African Americans. And that's not to demonize anybody else. You know, America is a great nation because all of us have contributed, but these are the unique and specific contributions that these people [African Americans] have made to make America a great country.
The exhibition has traveled from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and in between over the past four years. What does it mean to you that it will be on display at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture during this year's Democratic National Convention, in the host city?
Charlotte is about to make history as the site where the first African-American president was nominated again for a second term. But he didn't just fall out of the heavens. There's a 400-year journey in this country that made this moment possible and Charlotte will now be a part of it, in terms of the history books. So, if you're there to celebrate Barack Obama and to renominate him and do the work from Charlotte back to the White House, while you're in Charlotte go by the Gantt and check out this wonderful exhibit that lays out a clear path for how he arrived to the White House.
It's one thing for non-blacks to view something like the "Doors of No Return" — a set of doors through which Africans passed when boarding the slave ships bound for America — but it seems quite another for an African American to view that same item in the exhibit. What is that feeling?
If you're an African American, it's a spiritual experience to stand between these doors that our ancestors were marched through on their way to be sold into slavery hundreds of years ago.
Much of this exhibition focuses on the darkness of America's past. What do you hope people take away from it?
We've all played a role in making America a great nation and if we are going to turn around the economic situation in this country and shrink the divide between the rich and the rest of us — whatever we're going to do to make America the nation that she ought to be, just like we arrived at this place by doing it together, we're going to have to get from here to the next level by doing it together. I hope this exhibit reminds people that we are a better nation when we're all pulling in the same direction.
— Anita Overcash
Awesome article. This is a brilliant idea and touching story. Best of luck Meghan!
Thank you so much!