By Chris King, Special to the NNPA from The St. Louis American –
There is no mainstream institution in the St. Louis region that addresses, head-on, the issues of race more consistently or effectively than the Missouri History Museum under the direction of Robert R. Archibald. With American I AM: the African American Imprint at the museum through September 25, we asked Archibald about the exhibit and his tenacity in hosting shows like this in St. Louis.
The St. Louis American: Tell me about American I AM and why you wanted to show it in St. Louis.
Robert R. Archibald: When organizations were solicited for proposals and expressions of interest, we made sure we had somebody there at the first meeting with their hands up first. We were not the first venue to show it, but we were first on the list.
The exhibit is a journey of 300 or 400 years of African and African-American history. From an object standpoint, there are African art objects that Dr. Suggs tells me are of extremely rare and beautiful quality. It has the African cultural background to the enforced enslavement of African people – for instance, the doors from a castle where people were imprisoned before shipment. There are some macabre instruments of slavery. And there are some just amazing things, like Langston Hughes’ original manuscript and typewriter. It has the real stuff in it.
It also documents the ways African Americans have persisted and achieved and made huge contributions, despite all the obstacles placed in their way. The message of the exhibit is these are really strong people who learned to be strong and had to be strong and who represent in many ways the best of what humans are. For people of African descent, we are looking at something really empowering that underscores all the things we know to be true. For people who are not of African descent, this is an opportunity to stand in the shoes of African Americans and view the world from their extraordinary perspective.
The exhibit is set up with a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois: “Would America be America without our Negro citizens?” The answer the exhibit gives is a resounding, “No!” To be American is to be an inheritor of the African-American experience.
I wanted to bring it here because we are looking at a community that self-evidently is grasping at all kinds of fixes (and I don’t mean to minimize them), whether it be a cargo hub or attempting to attract this business or that business, but in the end we need to create a community where people want to live. And, people want to live in places where there is reasonable equity and people get along reasonably well and civic agendas are pursued with respect for democratic process and there is not a huge discrepancy between the richest people and the poorest people and where the community is not segregated.
And, when we look at St. Louis, deep down in our hearts and souls we know something is wrong that we are even reluctant to talk about, and that thing we are reluctant to talk about is the fact that our disparities too often are based on race and it is those disparities that hold us back. So, my hope in bringing the exhibit here is to make one more little effort to build bridges and get people to stand in each other’s shoes and build a better understanding of people in St. Louis of African descent.
The American: You must sometimes get pushback and hear from the public or from your board members, “Enough with race!”
Robert Archibald: As for pushback, not very much, really. I get crank calls from racists, probably the same people call you as well, but not many.
We come at it at different angles. Last year we did Are We So Different?, which was an anthropological look at the idea of race, at whether skin color makes genetic sense as a basis to make distinctions between people. It wasn’t about people of African descent specifically, but all people. American I AM celebrates a specific people and their history.
Yes, you’re right, they do both deal with race, but it isn’t accusatory, we are not accusing anyone of racism. We are trying to overcome the barriers and boundaries and distinctions between people based on race.
People expect us to be a neutral forum for these debates and exhibits. If we don’t get some reaction, then what we’re doing is not very important. It’s important to deal with difficult topics but never to push people away, because in doing so you lose audience, and when you lose audience you lose effectiveness.