Choose a moment from the past few weeks, and narrate it for someone wanting to take this class or attend events next year. Develop the story as if you were still in the moment and expand on key details and interesting pieces of the moment.
As soon as I stepped out of the taxi with my 4 peers, we began making our way to the side entrance of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture and contacted MK to meet up with her. We were greeted by her glowing face and radiant smile and she thanked us for coming. A few minutes later the other 4 students joined us and we were given a brief explanation and introduction about the exhibit.
“This is my first time here, I haven’t seen it yet,” MK said, “so we’ll be experiencing it together.” Well, what have you at least heard about it? I thought. What if it isn’t any good?
We proceeded to enter the museum, received our tickets, and met Free Egunfemi. Before we went into the museum, she said, “I’d like for us to talk about this exhibit before we enter the experience. Let’s have a seat and chat a little.” So, we all walked into one of the museum rooms, which looked like a cafeteria-auditorium duo, and introduced ourselves to Free Egunfemi. We began to tell her our names, where we were from originally, the college we attended, and a superpower we wished we had. This superpower essentially helped us to get to know others in the room and see in what way they would help change the world or even themselves. My superpower would be to shun negative energy and be able to feel it. After brief introductions, Free then began telling us about the role she plays within the Richmond community and why she felt it was necessary to attend this exhibit.
“The stories and memoirs we’ll see are what the museum has chosen to put out there,” she acknowledged. She knew of many members on the commission board which curated the exhibit. While she had nothing negative to say about the individuals or about the board itself, I heard a sense of skepticism in her voice as to what this final exhibit–being showcased to the public and the entire world about the 400-year old history of African Americans from being enslaved to gaining freedom– would look and feel like.
From the moment that I walked into the museum, I felt a similar sense of skepticism. I saw familiar names all over the museum of people who contributed to the exhibit and were being paid some sort of honor and tribute to. The names were primarily white men and women, who had also contributed to the University of Richmond, a predominantly white school. This fact in itself made me a bit uncomfortable because I could imagine my predominantly white professors (who teach my predominantly white peers) and my school’s predominantly white donors telling the story of African-American slaves and struggles from 1619 to now– that image was not the most settling.
Free concluded our chat with a deep breath, thanked us for coming, and told us to enjoy the exhibit. We all got up, made our way to the stairs and entered the current setting of darkness. All eleven of us, walked into the exhibit and began at either one of two sides from the entrance. There were pictures, and plaques, and archives, and I was still looking for a good reason why the museum curated this exhibit in the first place, aside from the fact that it was the 400th anniversary. I kept thinking, is it because we’re in Virginia, home of the Confederacy? Is it just something everyone’s doing down South, so are all states doing something like this? Or is it because of Free and similar organizers and heavy hitters like herself–people that aren’t afraid to ask questions and demand answers?
Throughout the entire exhibit, I kept wondering how these stories were chosen. From Nat Turner’s Revolt, to the information on NAACP’s involvement with public school segregation, to Woolworth’s lunch counter, the excerpt on Gladys West, and the quote from Dr. Carter G. Woodson. These stories seemed to be biographies and short clips, rather than memoirs and anecdotes. There was some interesting information presented, in such impassive methods, and such important, crucial information lacking.
I thought about what Free had said, and I thought about what I knew about Virginia, the struggles and adversities African-Americans faced not only in this state, but in the country, and I thought about what I wanted people to know about my ancestors and my culture. The battles, physically and mentally, we had to overcome, the strides and long journeys we took with nothing but pain and grief on our backs. For example, lynchings that took place in several parts of the South in America, or more recently police brutality in America. There was no Eric Garner, Malcolm X, Mary Church Terrell. There were barely any faces of black people who had made changes and sacrificed much for me to be here today. Does the exhibit show all of that? Was it supposed to exhibit that side of the 400 Years? Was the exhibit even big or long enough? Without measuring of sizes and shapes, was the content at least big or rich enough? Did it leave anyone with a better, deeper understanding?
These questions popped into my mind one after another and I couldn’t seem to find the answer to not one of them, on my own. So, after we all got the opportunity to look closely into the exhibit and the images, graphics, interactions, and displays, we all made our way back downstairs and outside.
At first, no one had much to say, but it was obvious that it was a result of our minds vigilantly wandering. MK asked a question or two, received small short answers and just wanted to know where our ideas and thoughts were at the time. She began speaking a bit more and adding on the information she had in her head, and she even added that ironically there was nothing displayed or brought up about Gabriel–the reason why we all went.
The class has a focus specifically around Gabriel and we implicitly expected to see him or his story in some form of nature. MK sounded a bit disappointed and slightly upset. As someone who learned about Gabriel in one of her first classes at Richmond, entitled, “Slavery in Virginia,” I also expected Gabriel to be mentioned or alluded to in some way, form, or fashion.
After viewing the exhibit, I think it’s safe to say we were all a bit disappointed and concerned about the outcome of the exhibit. However, the topics and people that the exhibit lacked, gives us the ability to tell those stories ourselves–similar to what or opening event to commemorate Gabriel’s Rebellion.
We cannot rely on museums and the public to showcase our history and lift up our ancestors. We need to put on our own shows, performances, events, and exhibits to let the world know of our history, culture, and past. If no one else does, we need to stand up for our ancestors and pave the way for our generations in the future.