A New Take on Black History

Sandy Banks, Los Angeles Times, January 23, 2010

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This exhibit–“American I AM: The African American Imprint”–leaves no doubt about its vision: to “celebrate nearly 500 years of African American contributions to the U.S.”

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The exhibit, created by broadcaster Tavis Smiley, is on its third stop in a 10-city, four-year tour. It opened in Exposition Park in October and runs through April. On Monday, the day I visited, more than 700 people bought tickets to see it.

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The journey begins with an explanation of slavery–complete with artifacts like a slave ship manifest and ancient shackles and chains.

The docents keep a box of tissues on hand, “because some people get pretty worked up about it,” Lamison said. “You look at these things, and you can imagine the pain.”

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The exhibition starts on a somber note, but it ends with a triumphal tone, chronicling the influence of black culture on this country’s politics and pulpits, stages and sports.

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How does a young girl reconcile the promise of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, on exhibit in one glass case, with the receipt in another from the 1776 sale of slaves, $100 for a Negro woman and her child? I understand those parents who–like me–try to tie their children to our history, even though we cannot know what images they will remember in this sweep from slavery to the presidency.

The snapshot I choose from my exhibit visit is quintessential Los Angeles:

A rambunctious little boy named Josh, brown curls bouncing as he mimics Michael Jackson.

His African American father leaning against the wall, absently fiddling with his iPhone.

And his young, blond mother explaining to his brown-skinned sister why Rosa Parks refused to stand and Martin Luther King was behind bars.

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