Where the World Comes Together in San Francisco

Sunday, March 5, 2006

At San Francisco's newest museum, Exhibit A is you.

Upon entering the three-story Museum of the African Diaspora, visitors see their reflections in a mirrored wall with this greeting: "When did you discover you are African?"

Against the staircase is a mosaic of 2,700 sepia-toned photographs, sent in by ordinary people from around the world -- African tribal leaders, mixed-race couples, children of all colors. There's even a photo of two women from Vietnam (which I noticed right off, since I'm Vietnamese American).

The pictures make up a giant image of a pensive-looking little girl from Ghana.

The museum, which opened in December, initially was planned 10 years ago as a showcase for the African American experience. But the project morphed into something more universal and appealing. After all, visitors like me have seen African American museums and historic sites in major cities. And too often, Africa and African Americans are cast off in society and history as the "other," isolated from the mainstream.

The purpose of the Museum of the African Diaspora is to explore our common heritage as humans by focusing on Africa as the place where the oldest human remains have been found and from which so many migrations occurred. The exhibits are about Africa as the familiar, not as the exotic.

Here, you won't see any photos of starving children. Instead, there's an interactive computer display about food. Press a button and learn how coffee, greens, peanuts and other foods journeyed from Africa to your table. Coffee is said to have first been cultivated in the Kaffa region of southern Ethiopia. The word "goober," slang for peanuts, might have come from the African "nguba." The exhibit shows how slave masters in the antebellum South threw away the leafy tops of turnips and slaves turned them into lard-flavored greens.

Then there's the music. The computer displays are divided into purely African music, African American music, and African-influenced Latin American and Caribbean music. Press the buttons and listen: tribal songs, jazz, gospel, hip-hop, the rumba and reggae. There's a temptation to press as many buttons as you can and make your own mix CD. (Maybe the museum could come up with a way for future visitors to do that?) Unfortunately, the museum corridor is so narrow that visitors feel crowded around the food and music exhibits. It can be distracting hearing hip-hop beats while reading about rice and beans.

Thankfully, the museum's most emotional exhibit is down the hall, behind a heavy curtain. Voices boom from the darkened room.

The day I visited, a group of high school students was sitting on the benches lining the room. They were quiet. The taped voices were that powerful.

The voices belong to actors, reading actual slave narratives. They fill the small space with such details that no images are needed.

"The stench, the stench," moaned a man's voice, describing how he had just entered the packed hold of a slave ship. Two men, he said, had jumped overboard and drowned. Another tried to follow but failed and was mercilessly flogged for preferring death to slavery.

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