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"... I felt compelled to repurpose our visit to the museum as a lesson on the need for Black culture to be preserved and chronicled by Black folks"

I had an epiphany while on vacation in L.A. this weekend. I took my son to the California African American Museum in Los Angeles (down by University of Southern California, for the L.A. heads that don’t even know it exists).

I had been going on and on to my son about the importance of seeing this museum in the midst of our going to amusement parks and beaches. “There is a lot to take in and appreciate, son. This goes a long way toward putting faces to the talk you hear about the civil rights struggle, slavery, black contributions to society and the creative arts.. you’ll see”, I told him.

The museum location (39th & Figueroa) is located in an area that also hosts the Museum of Science, The Museum of Natural History and The Coliseum. The African American Museum is a beautifully designed, one-story structure that was impressive from the outside. We entered a lobby that was well over 1,500 square feet. Very museum-ie and impressive. I was mentally prepared for an expansive museum that would open my kid’s eyes and enlighten him.

I was a little embarrassed and a lot disappointed when the information desk lady told us that there were only 5 “exhibits” in the entire museum. To add insult to injury, two of the exhibits were closed so an entire museum outing would net seeing three exhibits. My son looked at me questioningly.

We decide to make the most of it and start our walk through. First stop, the “March On Washington” exhibit. This amounted to a video presentation, a few reproduced newspaper headlines and a few blown up photos from the day. The exhibit room was the size of my son’s bedroom at home, maybe 18x22 feet; sounds big, but not really. The lack of information and content, not to mention the room size, were not lost on my son. He just turned 13 a couple of weeks ago but he knew something was amiss.

Next room, the Geoffrey Holder Exhibit. Now this room was easily 800-1,000 square feet. You could probably fit five March On Washington exhibits in this room. There were pleny of photos and displays of articles, paintings, sculptures and evening gowns designed by Mr. Holder. Although it was an impressive body of work, it, in my opinion, was nowhere near representative of overall black history and culture. I was getting more than a little heated that a museum was so hugely missing the mark. I must admit that I had a problem with an overly flamboyant, effeminate man representing Black culture to my 13 yr. old son… in a place that I’ve brought him to, under the premise that there was vital information for him regarding his history and identity as a fledgling Black man. No disrespect to Geoffrey Holder, but was this REALLY lending to Black history that my son can look back on and see the dues that have been paid? The reasons why he should have pride in himself and his culture and history?

The next stop on our “tour” was the third exhibit. Now this one, I can’t complain about. It displayed a lot of art created by Black artists from different eras. It included paintings, sculpture, pieces made from abstract materials, art that depicted Black historical events and figures. I was pleased. But I was also outraged about the bare bones content of the museum in its entirety. A brief allusion to the civil rights era, no mention of slavery to speak of, no contemporary slant on noteworthy Black contributions to society in ANY discipline.. science, mathematics, physics, inventions of any kind, none of the basic icons of Black history (not to mention the obscure ones that have been buried into near oblivion). Unless those two closed exhibits were super informative, the museum fell short. Our entire walkthrough took 23 minutes. This included the 10 minutes it took to walk from and to our parking spot.

On the walk to the car, I felt compelled to repurpose our visit to the museum as a lesson on the need for Black culture to be preserved and chronicled by Black people. I told my son that when left up to anyone other than Black folks, Black culture and history will only be minimally preserved. Just enough will be done to prevent accusations of marginalizing Black history and culture. I told him that may be, in part, because of America’s ugly past in its treatment of Blacks and that the reflection in this type of mirror can be quite ugly. His lesson... that we have to fight for our heritage because for years it was intentionally buried and suppressed. For years our culture and heritage was not chronicled by those living it because it was illegal for them to read and write, or it was purposely destroyed right before their eyes. We have to take responsibility for unearthing our great-great-great-grandparents’ experiences and preserving them. Putting them on display for our children (and the world) to see and understand. Give them a reason to hold their heads up and aspire to be more like the royalty they come from.

My interpretation of the CA African American Museum, and others like it, is that it was created partly as a form of hush money. It’s a hollow place that the Black community can say exists but has no real content that contributes to or truly educates on Black culture. Maybe a little bit of a contribution but.. when I think of a museum of ANY kind, I think of a building that’s an encyclopedia with walls. A little black kid can’t really go there and say to himself, “Wow, we rock. We’ve done so much that I didn’t know about. I’m glad I came.” Even worse, I saw White families entering the museum as we left and was embarrassed by how little they’d find pertaining to what we, as a people, bring to the table besides crime statistics. Just think if they were from outside the U.S., what interpretation they’d get of American Blacks. I mean, in an environment where we have the input to ensure that we are represented correctly.

Now I don’t mean to rag so much on the CA AAM specifically, but that museum trip was an eye opener. On our walk back to the car, I couldn’t help pointing out that the other museums on the grounds were at least three stories tall each while our exhibits could have fit in a Ford Econoline van. If that would have been the CA African American Museum of Infamous Crimes it would have had plenty of floors in that b**ch, an elevator and a gift shop selling “Git Money$” and “Stop Snitching” t-shirts.

I guess I will wrap my rant up by stating, no one owes us any dedication to making sure our story is told. We have to take preserving our history seriously and take responsibility for seeing it done right. Black History Month, a museum or a Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. and statue every 10-15 years is not enough. What about all the other icons and people who sacrificed between when Harriet Tubman died and when MLK Jr. was born? Where are all the other black inventors chronicled? I mean, other than Benjamin Banneker and George Washington Carver? Were they the only two, ever? Where’s the story about the only time in American History bombs were dropped on American citizens inside the United States by a state government (Black Wall Street, 1921, Tulsa, OK)? That event wasn’t only Black history, but American history.

Word of mouth preservation of Black culture is dying. With the deaths of the great grandmothers and grandfathers that were the last to witness and relay this information verbally, more and more ‘hidden’ Black culture will disappear from the landscape. Especially considering that the thugged-out generation of today is too cool to really give credence to the information anyway. History, to them, has little to no value. Really a Catch-22 considering that the absence of history influences them to be gangsta and reject the information that would influence them to have pride and pull up their pants.

It’s our responsibility to preserve this information and MAKE IT RELEVANT.

v. ray

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