Wednesday, February 10, 2010

'America I Am: The African American Imprint' doesn't flinch at our history

The "America I Am" exhibit at the California Science Center celebrating the African-American imprint on our nation is enlightening, heart-wrenching, terrifying and hopeful.

Don't think you'll leave this exhibit unaffected.

CC and I were invited this past weekend to "America I Am," a Tavis Smiley presentation that takes up 15,000 square feet of the building's third floor, for a special blogger's day event.

With the election of our first African-American president, the exhibit -- running through May 2 at the Science Center -- examines a question first posed by writer W.E.B Du Bois: Would America have been America without her Negro people?

"America I Am" tackles that question -- and not lightly -- with more than 200 artifacts from over 500 years of history.

There are clothes from the slim Frederick Douglass as well as the towering Thurgood Marshall, dresses from Aretha Franklin and Serena Williams' signed shoes.

But it was the slave shackles; the "Doors of No Return," from Cape Coast Castle in Ghana where slaves were held while awaiting crowded ships to the Americas; the whips; and, finally, the blindingly white KKK costume that seemed to peer down menacingly from its glass case that took my breath away.

When CC walked over to that pointed hood and stared for what seemed like minutes, I was torn.

"What's that, Mommy?" she asked.

Should I let her see this? Should I run away with her right now? It was difficult. I scooped her up, told her that bad people used to wear those outfits to scare others, and then I took her to the other side of the room, which showed one of Jesse Owens' Olympic medals. (Nothing like distraction when it comes to avoiding terrifying American history.)

But that gallery proved too much for one African-American father accompanying his undaunted 9-year-old daughter.

"No, let's go," I heard him say.

"But I want to stay!" she said, stomping her foot.

And then they left.

And, truthfully, I didn't blame him. I can't imagine what that must have felt like for him. I kind of wanted to bolt, too, given the heart-breaking images. But CC and I continued through the remainder of the exhibit on our own, after listening to the knowledgeable and obviously affected docents discuss each gallery.

Although I was impressed by their overall expertise of the subject matter and ability to make it interesting and involving to the parents as well as the children, I was disappointed in one comment that seemed borderline irresponsible.

When discussing the massively overcrowded slave ships that traveled from Africa to America, one of the docents explained the Triangle Trade route and said that these slave ships "were America's biggest business -- just like today's jails are America's biggest business."

The first part of that statement -- that slaves were big business in colonial America -- is an unfortunate fact of our history. However, equating that horror with today's jail system is an unfair comparison that undermines what slaves endured hundreds of years ago.

That said, when CC and I left the exhibit, I had to catch my breath. There was so much in my head -- being confronted by a horrible history; introducing my daughter to that history; and watching as descendants of that history sought to educate and remind visitors of what is an indelible part of our American fabric. That history belongs to all of us.

And as we were walking out, I ran into the father and daughter who had left earlier.

I told him I was writing a post for my blog and wondered if he liked the exhibit and (perhaps nosily) asked why he left.

"I know it was just a moment in time," he said, raising his hands to his chest. "But it really gets you right there."

"America I Am: The African American Imprint"
California Science Center
Exposition Park
39th Street & Figueroa Street
Los Angeles, CA 90037

Tickets: Adults ($9.50), Youth 13-17 ($8.50) Children 4-12 ($6)

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