by Rod Clare, Elon University
It has been over forty years since the mostly successful conclusion of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. While some may have thought the election of an African-American president in 2008 heralded a “postracial” America, continued violence and oppression has brought about a rebirth of activism, embodied by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Now that nascent movement is preparing to be part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The NMAAHC is located at 1400 Constitution Avenue NW, in Washington DC.
The museum’s overriding goals are to make people aware of African-American history and to foster understanding and reconciliation about race in America and the world. The fact that the BLM movement is so new gives rise to concerns that the museum is collecting material that is too recent, topical, and potentially controversial. Nevertheless, as the director of the NMAAHC, Lonnie Bunch, has made clear, collecting and promoting such material helps “people to realize … that these are not isolated moments. They are part of a long history—a long history of tragedy, but also a long history of resilience and protest.”1
Though seemingly radical, Bunch’s approach is not without precedent when it comes to museums representing African-American lives (and deaths). A recent example of this is Kehinde Wiley’s exhibit, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, presented from February to May 2015, at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Superimposing modern blacks onto classical Western art reliefs, Wiley’s work made one patron comment that “the fact that they have an exhibit like this maybe could revitalize that conversation again about Black Lives Matter.”2
A symposium on “History, Rebellion, and Reconciliation,” held at the Smithsonian in April 2015, discussed in part the fatal shooting of an African-American youth in Ferguson, Missouri, in the previous year. A reoccurring theme at the symposium was that museums could offer neutral “‘safe,’ or even ‘sacred’ spaces, within which visitors could wrestle with difficult and complex topics.”3 Currently, there is no better example of a more controversial and nuanced topic in America than the Black Lives Matter movement.
The BLM movement, born in 2013, was indirectly created out of decades of frustration within the African-American community over the legal system’s continual exoneration of those who had taken black lives. Often, those killed had transgressed supposed spatial boundaries, an issue in the past (for example, when a black youth “strayed” into a white section of a public beach, and responses by whites instigated the Chicago riots of 1919 that took thirty-eight lives), as much as the present. BLM’s direct genesis came as a result of the not-guilty verdict against George Zimmerman, who stalked and killed Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old black youth who Zimmerman thought was in the wrong part of town in Sanford, Florida. Three black women (Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi), all activists in the African-American community, viewed the verdict with shock, anger, and an underlying belief that something had to be done. Due to their drive and to further instances of black lives being taken, with ensuing rebellions in cities like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, the movement has quickly taken off. Currently the BLM movement has approximately two dozen chapters throughout the United States as well as chapters in Ghana and Canada.
Implicit in the rise of BLM and its attendant demands and concerns is the long-standing issue of black mobility. That is, where can black people go and when can they go there? This question is not only relevant for African Americans currently but also in their arduous history in America. The idea of black mobility has been a fundamental query since African Americans were brought to America as enslaved people. As such, their movements and associations were always strictly monitored and in many cases, prohibited by laws, slave patrols, and other means. After the end of slavery, this remained the case in the South and indeed in other parts of the country well into the twentieth century through the implementation of Black Codes, Ku Klux Klan terrorism, sharecropping contracts, city zoning laws, segregation, and various other means.
In fact, it can be said that blacks gained any semblance of true mobility in the country only in the early 1970s when the last host of Civil Rights laws became implemented and enforced. Two generations later, it is fitting that some have described the BLM protests as the new Civil Rights movement. In a sense, BLM seeks to answer the question of whether or not some fifty years later black lives are truly valued as equal to all others in the country. From the U.S. government’s COINTELPRO assassination and disruption programs against black activists in the late 1960s and 1970s to the “stop and frisk” police sweeps since the 1990s and incidents such as the arrest of Sandra Bland in 2015, the curtailment of black movement makes the answer decidedly mixed.
The relevancy and emotions concerning the lasting effects of what has been labeled America’s “original sin” makes it a timely yet somewhat uncomfortable issue for a museum to embrace. This then begs the question, “what exactly is the purpose of a museum?” The International Council of Museums (ICOM) defines it as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”4 Most people would tend to define a museum as a place where old, if not ancient, objects are put on display to be reviewed in a genteel fashion. This might make it seem that only the elite patronize museums but nothing could be further from the truth. According to the American Alliance of Museums, some 850 million visits occur each year in American museums, more than all major organized sports put together.5
What Lonnie Bunch, NMAAHC’s director, wants to do is bring a current and controversial topic to the most respected of American museums, the Smithsonian. As Bunch put it in an interview with National Public Radio,
One of the jobs of a museum is to not only look back, but to look forward. And so once I heard about [the demonstrations] I knew it was very important to make sure that we collected material that might help a curator 20 years from now or 50 years from now look back and tell the story of the changing notions of race in America.6
Some of the items Bunch prioritizes for collection include banners, posters, gas masks, and a 4’ by 7’ panel of wood used to protect stores during the disturbances, which has printed on it “hands up,” along with cell phone videos and photos. A purpose of the NMAAHC, Bunch notes, is to place racial conflict and historical events in context, to make people realize that there are “moments of possibility,” where fundamental change and progress can be made. There will certainly be more material for the NMAAHC to collect based on the BLM’s new (as of August 2015) ten-point policy directive, Campaign Zero, directed at state and federal policing authorities.7 Though many may not link the two, the BLM movement is linked to the Constitution, for both have at their core the idea “to form a more perfect union.” This ideal, encompassing issues of life, liberty, and freedom of movement, is as radical and patriotic as the symbolism of what it means to be free in America.
This exhibit review originally appeared in volume 6, issue 1 of Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies.
- National Public Radio (NPR), “Black Lives Matter: Coming to a Museum Near You?” 1 August 2015, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2015/08/01/428085104/black-lives-matter-coming-to-a-museum-near-you. National Public Radio (accessed 12 September 2015).
- “At the Brooklyn Museum, Art Helps Show Why Black Lives Matter,” Aljazeera America, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/2/kehinde-wiley-showat-brooklyn-museum.html (accessed 11 September 2015).
- “Why Museums Should be a Safe Space to Discuss Why #BlackLivesMatter,” Smithsonian.com, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/whymuseums-should-be-safe-space-discuss-why-black-lives-matter-180955114/?-no-ist (accessed 12 September 2015).
- “Museum Defi nition,” International Council of Museums, http://icom.museum/the-vision/museum-defi nition/ (accessed 12 September 2015).
- “Museum Facts,” American Alliance of Museums, http://www.aam-us.org/about-museums/museum-facts (accessed 16 August 2015).NPR, “Black Lives Matter: Coming to a Museum Near You?”
- “Solutions Overview,” Solutions: Campaign Zero, http://www.joincampaignzero.org/solutions/#solutionsoverview (accessed 13 September 2015).