Using history as a catalyst for community engagement

Dr. Brenda Aiken Thompson, DWK, Dr. Iris L. Davis – photo credit_Adjaye Bradley

I was reminded of the power of history during my recent visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, DC. My soul sisters and I decided to celebrate our June birthdays at this esteemed national monument and treasure trove of the African American experience. Upon arrival, we immediately went to the top floor to peruse the arts, culture and entertainment section. It is so well curated and contained all the cultural touchstones of my childhood and beyond—including television shows, films, poetry and music. It truly was a wonderful and empowering experience.

I appreciated the numerous groups of white visitors that we saw during our museum. Something propelled them to come and learn more about their neighbors and I hope they share their experiences with their family and friends when they return home. The African-American experience is so deeply imbedded in the fabric of the American experience, that I firmly believe all Americans need to experience the NMAAHC, not just us. It would have been impossible for this country to have developed from the original 13 Colonies to become a world power without the free slave labor and later, the technological, scientific and creative contributions of African Americans.

What struck me most was how important it is to have an institution that captures and puts in context the history of African Americans so that the “fear of the other” can no longer be a barrier. The museum offers a cultural, social and political context for hot combs, Afros, the colors we wear, African influences and protest music. It also examines the African Diaspora—the dispersion of African people around the world, originally through slavery, and the economic, political, social and cultural impact it has had on the world.

I also was struck by a quote from the writer bell hooks exhibited at the museum. She wrote: “People resist by…telling their story.” I believe that’s true for any group of people—it’s essential that you tell your own story so that your truth can be revealed; be in the narrative, as well as control the narrative. The arts allow us to be who we are—paint our lives, speak our truths and sing our stories. In my opinion, the arts are the best vessel for maintaining history and legacy, and the NMAAHC is indeed a massive work of art and deserves our support.

The late Paul Robeson once said, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.”  That’s why I think the arts challenge our thinking; expand our perspective; provide an enlightened perspective of the world and offer the best hope for humanity to express and expose its greatest self. I think institutions like the NMAAHC provide an example for those of us engaged in cultural work of what can be created when history is the catalyst for community engagement. I envision artistic programming that includes dedicated offerings that capture the stories, histories and legacies of various peoples. We need more than the 30-day reflections spurred by “Black History, Asian American Pacific, Latino, Native American/Heritage Months.” Instead, we need a movement of contextually relevant and authentic history shared through the arts across all genres, interconnecting communities, and bridging arts organizations, and paving the way for a deeper understanding of “other” and each other. The arts are the best possible vehicle for truly weaving together the frayed edges of American cultural life and making that fabric invincible. For inspiration, visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture.