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America I Am: The African American Imprint

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America I Am: The African American Imprint photo
A jail key from the Birmingham cell where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was held after the 1963 Birmingham campaigns. (Mark Lyons)
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Editorial Review

"America I Am" exhibit opens at National Geographic Museum

By Stephanie Merry
Thursday, January 27, 2011

With 200 artifacts that chronicle the African American experience over 500 years, it might at first appear that "America I Am: The African American Imprint" is merely a sweeping historical overview. The National Geographic Museum exhibit, which opens Wednesday, undoubtedly covers a lot of ground. But the show proves it's possible to be comprehensive without being superficial.

The trick is context, considering each artifact as it relates to those surrounding it. In that way, the myriad objects - from slave shackles to Rosa Parks's fingerprints to Prince's purple guitar - have the same impact as the chiaroscuro from a Caravaggio painting; the dark historical moments make the bright achievements that follow seem that much more brilliant.

"America I Am," the brainchild of television personality and political commentator Tavis Smiley, touches down in Washington just as Black History Month gets underway and marks the middle of the show's 10-city tour, which began at Philadelphia's National Constitution Center in 2009. Smiley formed the exhibit as the response to a question posed a century ago by W.E.B. Du Bois: "Would America have been America without her Negro people?"

That might explain why the show, created with the help of the Cincinnati Museum Center, feels so all-encompassing. The question is now a rhetorical one; African Americans have made contributions in every field. The answer to Du Bois's query fills 12 galleries and 12,000 square feet, and is centered on four areas: economic, sociopolitical, cultural and spiritual.

But before getting to the accomplishments, some history is in order. Rifles and handcuffs used by slave captors set the scene for an illustration showing the hull of a ship filled beyond capacity with men and women journeying from Africa to the New World. The white robe of a Ku Klux Klan member looms menacingly in one exhibit room.

These images offer up a foil to make the objects that follow all the more remarkable. Articles of clothing owned by Frederick Douglass stand in for the seeds of hope, while the sea change in American civil rights finds a spotlight thanks to some of the show's most impressive artifacts. A photo of Rosa Parks in custody is framed alongside her fingerprints after she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus; a small metal bench turns out to be the prison cell stool where Martin Luther King Jr. sat to write "Letters From a Birmingham Jail." The key to that cell is also on display.

Other objects fall under more of a pop culture heading. Visitors can see the robe Muhammad Ali wore while training for the Rumble in the Jungle, along with Arthur Ashe's tennis racket, Louis Armstrong's bugle and a colorful get-up once worn by Jimi Hendrix. Although one of Michael Jordan's jerseys doesn't deliver the same emotional impact as a railroad sign that reads "For Whites Only," the impressive array of objects does serve as a testament to the breadth of African American accomplishments and all the obstacles that might have prevented them.