A single iconic quote from scholar W.E.B. DuBois inspired Tavis Smiley to begin a monumental quest to present the most comprehensive examination of “the African American imprint” on American society. When DuBois asked, “Would America have been America without her Negro people?” the question wasn’t quite so simple.
And now, thanks to the efforts of Smiley, the Cincinnati Museum Center, Arts and Exhibitions International (AEI) and a host of national and regional corporate sponsors, America I AM highlights the complexity inherent in mounting a response to that query.
During an interview prior to the opening of the exhibition, Smiley explained that the rhetorical remark from DuBois was just one incident along a chain of events that took hold of him and drove him to gather a team to produce this immense traveling project.
“I was in Jamestown, Va., a few years ago for the 400th commemoration of the Jamestown settlement, which was when slaves first arrived back in 1619,” Smiley says. “While there, I started wrestling with this idea of what was a moment in time, an anniversary or a commemoration of not just that first arrival of the slaves but the subsequent stories of all the black folks and their contributions since that time to make the country great and how those stories could be told beyond a one or two day celebration inside the state of Virginia.
“Ultimately what I came up with was an idea to do a traveling art exhibition that would tell the story of our contribution from the slaves’ arrival at Jamestown all the way up to and including the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. And that’s what this exhibit is. It's a 400-year journey.”
And America I AM the journey was built around DuBois’s question without taking anything away from the contributions — the blood, sweat and tears — of countless other groups that made their way to this land to start anew.
“We are not here,” Smiley says, “to demonize anyone.”
It's a timely and remarkably relevant marker for a country that's struggling in many ways and places with the notion of how to recognize the efforts of various ethnic and cultural components to our constantly evolving democratic society striving to come together as one.
“It is only traveling for four years across 10 cities (it’s already passed through Atlanta, Los Angeles and Philadelphia) and we’re glad Cincinnati is one of those key stops,” Smiley says.
Smiley went even further during the press day prior to the June 19 opening to highlight the importance of Cincinnati to the development of America I AM. The city serves as a regional epicenter, the Midwestern focal point along the exhibition’s tour route.
There are nearly 300 artifacts assembled to tell this story, and it's certain to be a collection audiences might never have the chance to see again in one place. It’s difficult to shine a spotlight on just one piece, to offer one example, but during the press tour, which Smiley led prior to the opening, he spent an extra moment or two discussing a free pass that belonged to Frederick Douglas.
As a freedman traveling the country to raise awareness and support for the Union at that time, Douglas had to carry a signed letter from President Abraham Lincoln to avoid being harassed by whites seeking to retrieve escaped slaves. That signed note, which asserts that Douglas is “a gentleman” and providing service to the nation, sits encased in glass alongside some of Douglas’ clothing — in particular, one of his monogrammed shirts. A series of fascinating and startling contrasts emerge from just these few pieces.
From the sad historic commentary inspired by the idea that Douglas needed what amounts to a hall pass from the president to travel the country to the sense that this man, even in those desperate times, was an arbiter of cool with his monogrammed shirts, speaks to the enduring spirit and endearing style of African Americans. Therein lies the unique and uncanny soul of America I AM.
The exhibition, which will remain at the Museum Center through Jan. 2, is not a stand-alone celebration or marker. Smiley and his exhibition partners, with technical support from Microsoft, have created and updated their highly interactive Web site (www.americaIAM.org) and have a series of books (America I AM Black Facts, America I AM Legends and the inspirational America I AM Journal) available to supplement the experience.
Because there is so much to the exhibition, Smiley believes that the lessons for those who engage in the experience will undoubtedly be different for each individual.
“Especially in terms of the kids, and I have seen thousands who have already taken part in Atlanta, Los Angeles and Philadelphia,” he says. “I am always amazed at what turns them on. One to the next, they have been as different as their individual thumb prints. But what I do know is that every child comes away informed and inspired. It is informative. It is instructive. It is inspiring.”
For children and adults of all races and all facets of the American experience, America I AM seeks to re-acquaint us all with a less explored piece of ourselves.
AMERICA I AM continues at the Cincinnati Museum Center through Jan. 2. Get exhibition and venue details and buy tickets here.