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Jabari Asim

Curating and Reclaiming Black History

By Jabari Asim
Monday, February 7, 2005; 10:32 AM

WASHINGTON -- "We need the historian and philosopher to give us with trenchant pen, the story of our forefathers," wrote Arturo Alfonso Schomburg in 1925, "and let our soul and body, with phosphorescent light, brighten the chasm that separates us."

Few were as committed to studying and reclaiming the past than Schomburg, for whom New York's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is named.

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A black native of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, Schomburg was raised in Puerto Rico. In 1891 he moved to New York and became deeply involved in American Negro culture. By the time he wrote "The Negro Digs up His Past," the essay from which I quote above, he had become a foremost collector of African-American memorabilia. Eventually he compiled more than 10,000 books, manuscripts, prints and other documents related to the history and achievements of black people.

In 1926 -- the same year in which Carter G. Woodson began promoting Negro History Week -- Schomburg sold his private collection to the New York Public Library. Six years later he became curator of its Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints at the 135th Street branch, and served until his death in 1938.

The Schomburg Center, located on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, has become the world-class repository that its namesake envisioned. Its Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division alone contains more than 3,900 books, 580 manuscript collections, and 15,000 pieces of sheet music and rare printed materials. These include the original manuscript of Richard Wright's "Native Son" and the papers of Robert Weaver, who in 1966 became the first black to hold a Cabinet post as secretary of housing and urban development.

Perhaps it's fitting that the "story of our forefathers" Schomburg called for in 1925 is given impressive tribute in "In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience," which opened at the center this month. The project makes use of 16,500 pages of essays, manuscripts and maps, plus 8,300 illustrations to present a new interpretation of African-American history that focuses on the "self-motivated activities of peoples of African descent to remake themselves and their worlds." While the exhibit is on display at the center, most of the material is also accessible through an inspiring multimedia Web site (www.inmotionaame.org.).

Schomburg also insisted that "the American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future." In his view, "history must restore what slavery took away." The "In Motion" exhibit not only attempts to fill missing gaps in the black past, but also pursues an expansive scope that goes way beyond slavery. The project revolves around 13 "major migratory moments," only two of which -- the trans-Atlantic and the domestic slave trades -- were involuntary. Hence unprecedented attention is given to the movement of Caribbean and African blacks to the United States, as well to mass movements of blacks from one region of the country to another.

Because of this approach, visitors to the site will find fascinating facts -- "Since 1970 more continental Africans have moved to the U.S. than came in the slave trade" -- and images beyond the familiar illustrations of slaves toiling in the fields. There are, for example, beguiling photos of Caribbean immigrants proudly parading the streets of New York, bedecked in the colors of their island homelands.

Supplementary materials include a companion book published by National Geographic and a Black History Month teaching kit for educators. These offer refreshing options for those of us exhausted by representations that reduce the African-American experience to either of two extremes: A woefully minimalist view revolving around slavery and perpetual victimhood and, at the other end, a version that suggests that all black Americans descended from African royalty.

If we're lucky, "In Motion" may also light a fire under those unimaginative teachers who adhere to a "usual suspects" lesson plan for this time of year. I can't be the only parent whose kids trot home every February with yet another insipid poem about Martin Luther King Jr. It would knock my socks off if they arrived at the doorstep reciting facts about say, William Alexander Leidesdorff. He was a black man who in 1844 became a Mexican citizen in order to purchase the 35,000-acre Rio de Los Americanos Ranch in what was then Mexican-controlled California. Leidesdorff is just one of countless little-known individuals whose histories are brought to life on the site.

"The face of African America now looks like a New Yorker in Atlanta, a Mississippian in Chicago, a Nigerian in Houston, and a Haitian in Miami," the site convincingly declares. Arturo Schomburg, himself a voluntary immigrant, would probably like the sound of that.

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