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The politics of cultural monuments depicting Black American contributions

David L. Horne | , Ph.D. | 2/22/2012, 5 p.m.

This week marks the second
major cultural event in the last
six months recognizing Black American contributions
to the development of this country.
The first, of course, was the Martin Luther King
Memorial on the Washington Mall, in August. The
second is the groundbreaking inauguration of the
Smithsonian Institute's African American Museum of
History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. This will
be the first national museum dedicated to the exclusive
study of African American life and culture, and
construction of the facility--the first national "green
environment" building on the mall--is scheduled to
be completed in 2015. The architectural firm heading
the project is Freelon Architects, an African
American-owned enterprise.
This, like Dr. King's statue, is a very big deal.
President Barack Obama will give the keynote
address, and there will be dignitaries galore, including
outstanding entertainment and creative people
testifying, from Thomas Hampson, who will sing two
songs: "Grief," by African American composer
William Grant Still, poet LeRoy V. Brant, and then
Aaron Copland's "Simple Gifts."
Hampson has performed these quintessential
American songs in recitals at home and overseas as
part of his ongoing "Song of America" project. Also
on hand will be mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, jazz
pianist Jason Moran, and the U.S. Navy Band.
The crowd, this time, will not be as large as that
for the MLK Memorial, since it is an invitation-only
affair. It is set for 10-11:30 am EST, and will be webcast
at www.nmaahc.si.edu
In terms of exemplifying and professionally presenting
virtually all aspects of the Black Experience
in America, this museum will be a major legacy piece
both for President Obama, and for museum director
Lonnie G. Bunche III, who has shepherded this project
for more than six years to its current condition.
President Obama will "forever" be linked to the two
largest and most famous monuments to Black life in
America. For those who still don't think he's made his
bones inside the Black community, we must ask what
have you been smoking?
As for Bunche, many of us still remember his excellent
curatorial skills at the California African American
Museum (CAAM) from 1983 to 1989. At CAAM, serving
as the curator of history and program manager, he
organized several award-winning exhibitions, including
"The Black Olympians, 1904-1950" and "Black
Angelenos: The Afro-American in Los Angeles, 1850-
1950," and helped to produce well-regarded Black historical
documentaries for public television.
Currently, Bunche is director of the Smithsonian's
National Museum of African American History and
Culture. In that position, he has identified the new
museum's mission, is developing its strategic plan of
exhibitions and public programs, and is coordinating
the museum's fundraising and budget development. He
is also the museum's chief advocate and its public face.
In January of this year, he produced, "The
Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the
Promise," which displayed more than 100 images created
by one of the premiere African American studios
in the country in cooperation with one of the longestrunning
Black businesses in Washington. That exhibition
will be on a national tour through 2012.
Additionally, to introduce the high quality exhibitions
the new museum intended to present regularly,
all the way back in 2007 the museum opened its
inaugural public show at the International Center of
Photography in New York, called "Let Your Motto Be
Resistance: African American Photographs."
That presentation, named after the Rev. Henry
Highland Garnett's famous slogan, examined 150
years of American history to show how photographers
and their subjects had worked collaboratively
to create positive images, to challenge negative racial
stereotypes and to help to shape new attitudes about
race and status in America.
Bunche has also been privileged to establish a program
called, "Save Our African American Treasures."
That creative effort is a series of daylong workshops
in which participants work with conservation specialists and historians to learn how both to identify
and preserve items of historical value. Examples of
such entities include photographs and jewelry to military
uniforms and textiles.
We applaud his continuing work, and this highquality
testament to Black historical achievements
and contributions. The National African American
Museum should be exceedingly useful in pushing the
envelope to ultimately create a unified American history
that includes the participation of all of this
country's citizens and residential groups.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of
PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute,
which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization
or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent
organization for the California Black Think Tank which still
operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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