400 Years of Injustice

After having heard Free Egunfemi talk about her mission of exposing the stories of African American history in a way that the museums and government organizations won’t I went into the exhibition with a bit of a new mindset. One that made me question what part of history was on display and what had been tucked away to be forgotten. The way the exhibit had been curated into four section based on the timeline of events made it easy for me to follow even though it was a little cheesy. The first half of it felt like I was walking through the pages of a text book. The second half where it became more interactive and showed the stories of real people and their effect on history was much more engaging to me although I still felt them lacking in some realism.

I feel like for the first two sections that were farther in the past they could have focused the attention on less individuals and dug deeper into their stories, maybe even connecting them to present day Richmond in some way. The fact that there is so much history involving African Americans in Richmond alone and very little of this was expressed through Determined was disappointing. They didn’t even mention Brother Gabriel although he is a great part of Richmond’s history. I feel like we are lucky to have an organization like Untold RVA to bring these stories to the light.

I like to think of American history as a whole, rather than African American History because this makes it seem less relevant and like a part that can be avoided. After leaving the museum I was curious to see if the exhibit was permanent or if it was just temporary, and disappointingly, I found it to be temporary, closing this March. Although it was missing things, I feel like it still started some needed discussions to a broader audience and the fact that an American history museum doesn’t commemorate the stories of African Americans is like leaving out a major part of history. I have recently learned through a different class that in all of Germany there is not a single statue or museum commemorating the Nazis. All Holocaust memorials focus on the victims and the thousands killed. There are also laws that have been passed, making sure that schools continue to teach the Nazi time in depth making sure not to leave the worst parts out. Whereas, America has statues that continue to praise confederate leaders, and has forgotten the names of many important slaves and African Americans over the years. Relating this back to the exhibit, I feel like the way history has been represented was through eyes that are ashamed of what happened and because of this focused more on the positive aspects or just grazed the surface of the injustice, omitting much of the struggle that these people had to endure.

The section I found the most interesting and powerful was at the very end where there was the family tree that had the family names of many of the Richmond families, it was cool to see how interconnected everything is. I also liked how the last bit was interactive and you could see other people’s reactions to the exhibit. I do feel as though they made the ending of the exhibit a bit too joyful because yes, although we have made it very far in the 400 years of injustice, the fight for equality and against racism in the US is still going on, and that should not be overlooked.

Questions that came up for me while I was walking through the exhibit was first, if this is the only section of the museum that focuses on the struggle and self-determination of African Americans? And like I mentioned before if it is a permanent installation? I’m glad that although the museum is lacking in telling the stories of African Americans in Richmond that there are people such as Free who are lifting this part of history up through Untold RVA.

Whose Stories Should be Told?

“The greatest and most frequent of the myths is that African Americans have been “free” from the condition of slavery for over a century and a half, and therefore should be able to fend for themselves, just like whites and immigrants.” (Walters, 2012).

If this is considered true by most Americans, it makes sense why the African Americans are more determined than ever in pursuing justice, equal opportunities and freedom in a country where their race was once oppressively exploited. This was the thought that I had prior to viewing the exhibits in the museum; to be able to see a collection of experiences gathered from the enslaved people and their descendants who are currently residing in Richmond. To read about how the impacts of slavery have on them and the movements towards reparation.

However, I was welcomed by a rich display of shiny silvers in shelves (which were once owned by the colonists in Virginia) that cover the four walls in the common area of the museum. They are displayed as valuables and a pride of Richmond. I find it to be inappropriate, but maybe it is an apt ‘opener’ for what is to come next.

In the following room, there are abundance of information about the history of slavery in America, the New World. Reading all of the information that looks like facts on the wall, it made me feel overwhelmed with the unimaginable suffering and struggles undergone by the enslaved. As someone who never did much readings on the history of slavery, I found the information obtained from the exhibition to be somehow ‘sufficient’. I learned that human beings are capable of hating/abusing/killing others because of the colour of their skin. It is just absurd. It made me think of my race, of why didn’t we do that to people of different skin tone? How can skin colour determines one’s superiority? This idea might be praised upon centuries ago that our races (synonymous to skin colour) determined the size of our brain and Africans and Australian aborigines were assumed to be the least intelligent ones (Morton as cited by Razzetti, 2017). The saddest part of this incomprehensible notion is, our society is still paying a high price for it although modern science has invalidated that myth.

After completing my visit at the museum and listening to my American classmates’ thoughts on the exhibition, I think it would have been important to include actual recounts from the enslaved people and their families who are experiencing life in Richmond right now. Although slavery was declared illegal after 1865, the impacts it has on the African Americans still persists up until today. According to Walters (2012), these people are still not considered as equal and that it is clear that they have not achieved ‘freedom’. Therefore, it is only logical to get their stories to be told apart from the commentaries presented which only involve the past.

On who gets to tell their stories; it seems like the facts presented in the museum are more like commentaries from the third party. I can only assume that (like any other narratives out there in general), there are various sides of an event. Of course, the ones presented in the museum are considered as one-sided and maybe they are told by those who have the upper hand to shape the history according to how they view the event. I personally think that it would be more holistic and fair to get stories from all parties involved i.e. stories of regrets, confession – the whole experience. It takes courage to do so, maybe it is time to be brave and tell the truth.

It is also important to distinguish between African American and American history. Just like how important it is to distinguish between native American and American history. Every history and narrative is unique, vital and should not be meshed into one form of history.

At the end of the visit, I was left with more questions as to how Free and the city of Richmond would improve the way history is curated in Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

References

Walters, W. R. (2012). The impact of slavery on the 20th- and 21st century Black progress. The Journal of African American History; Special Issue: “African Americans and Movements for Reparations: Past, Present, and Future“, 97 (1-2), 110-130.

Razzetti, G. (2017). Why racism is about the color of the mind, not your skin. Retrieved from https://liberationist.org/why-racism-is-about-the-color-of-the-mind-not-your-skin/

“FROM BROWN TO GREEN”

Visiting the exhibit, “Determined”, there was plenty of information presented that I had never learned or knew of before. While it was exciting to learn of information and facts that would normally not be given to me, other historical figures that I expected to be in the exhibit were omitted and their narratives weren’t told. Thinking of this, I remembered Free’s query prior to going upstairs to the exhibit: “Do we even want the museum to tell our stories and narratives or do we want to be able to tell the history ourselves?”

The section of the exhibit that interested me the most was entitled, “From Brown to Green”. This exhibit listed out several laws in the U.S. that directly affected the African-American population during its time and beyond. The first law included Brown v Board of Education, a law passed to integrate schools in the U.S. that ultimately did not result in integration. The entire section listed out laws such as Brown v Board, that were put in place by the Supreme Court to improve the status of African-Americans in their respective communities. The final law, Green v New Kent County was another attempt to desegregate schools in the U.S. and also took place in Virginia.

I don’t believe there was anything pertinent missing from the exhibit that I would’ve wanted to see there. I think it was very interesting the stories that were chosen and I am interested in learning more about how these stories were chosen and why they were showcased in a certain manner. I also saw a lot of bias from the museum’s exhibit, especially in the way it was physically constructed.

When we stepped into the museum, after receiving our tickets, the first thing I saw was an engraving on the wall of names and organizations that contributed to and sponsored the museum and exhibit. I recognized a few of the names as some of them were names of buildings on our campus. I thought about all the history I had learned about those people, and I knew that all of them were white or of European descent.

Before even walking up to the exhibit, I imagined in my head what the exhibit would look like and what stories it would tell. “Nothing fancy, straight to the pint, gets a message through, checks all the boxes.” In my time here in Richmond so far, I see a habit of checking the boxes when it come to the African-American or colored community and their requests. While the museum did shed some light on historical beings that were new to me, the information as a whole was not impressive and did not touch me.

This year being the 400th anniversary of forced African Migration to the U.S., specifically Virginia, this museum had a lot of artifacts to pull from and gather in order to showcase to the world a holistic view of the 400 years my people have been on this American soil. This holistic view, in my opinion, was not presented because African-Americans were not responsible for telling their own narratives to the world. Instead, the sponsors and members of the Virginia Historical Society were the authors and the African-Americans were the characters.

Superficial Institutionalized History

     The exhibit “Determined” brought about mainly negative reactions from the group. Free Egunfemi reminded us to go in with an open-mind and absorb all we can about the exhibit. She wanted us to also focus on what the exhibit was missing.

     The group first sat around a table and Free Egunfemi talked to us about how she got Untold RVA started and how she thinks it is up to the people themselves and not the institutions job to share the history and stories of cultures and oppressed people. She believes that historical exhibits generally are commentaries of history and they do not go further into the history and talk about the true pain and struggles and how it exists today. Egunfemi also mentioned her disappointment that the exhibit does not mention Gabriel at all. Optimistically, she said that it can provide the opportunity for the people to share the story of Gabriel and do it with dignity and sincerity. Free Egunfemi’s mentality reminds me of the “Emergent Strategy” reading because she comes from a mindset of healing rather than hate and destruction. She carries herself with grace as she tells the horrible stories of Richmond and this country. She acknowledges the problems in her community and she mindfully adjusts to the situation and figures out ways to move past it and create a better/improving situation.  Lastly, she said that the name of the exhibit itself is linguistically sad. Free Egunfemi told us that she uses the word “self-determined” to describe stories such as the story of Gabriel and how determined he was for the rebellion and to make change for himself and his people. She believes that leaving out the word “self” lessens the strength of the term and how important it is in fighting and fixing the struggles in society.

     After looking at the exhibit, the group met together and we discussed our interpretations of it. First, we talked about how superficial and cheesy it was. We felt like the majority of the exhibit was spitting out textbook facts and did not make it personal. It discussed the facts and dates from the start of slavery but then it skipped many years until it reached the present. The exhibit skipped many years as if nothing bad was going on during that time which added to the superficial and insincere quality of it. The walls even go from red, to orange, to brown, to green, and then to purple. It made it seem like society was bad during the time of slavery but since slavery “ended” and we had a black president then everything is better now. The colors symbolized pain and darkness and transitioned to a good and hopeful tone. The group discussed that the exhibit tried to cover up the reality and try to divert people’s attention to the successes of black people in America but do not highlight that the problems still exist. Last year, I learned of the idea that the injustices from history still exist today but they evolved which is why people think things have gotten better but in reality it has not. 

     The exhibit missed a personal aspect of their history telling. Adding connections from history to today is necessary and it was lacking. Also, like I mentioned, the exhibit needs to tell the injustices that are still going on currently. They can talk about the problems going on all over the world or country but the group also talked about how it would be interesting to specifically focus on the problems existing in Richmond. Thankfully, Untold RVA exists so that it can tell those stories of the true injustices in the area. 

     I think that the distinction between African American history and American history is interesting and important to talk about. Yes, we can tell the story of black people but there were the oppressed and the oppressors who were part in the making of America. Calling it African American separates black people from stories of this country. Black people are the heart of America and the oppressors exploited them for their own gains. We lessen their contributions to this country and we disrespect the struggles that they went through. 

     I wonder what other programs are like Untold RVA around the country because I believe that they can do the real work to commemorate the oppressed better than institutions. 

 

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