Does a museum make for reparations?
The modern reparations movement, which has been alive and lively in the USA since at least 1988, and even earlier in international circles, still breathes. It no longer invokes the fire and brimstone of the 1980s and ‘’90s, especially since Congressman John Conyers’ H.R. 40 bill, which has regularly been re-introduced in Congress as proposed legislation since 1989, is virtually dead now, and the Greenwood, Okla., court case—-sometimes called the Brown v. Board case of the reparations movement—was excoriated by the Supreme Court in 2007.
But, weakened and with fewer allies, it refuses to die. Dimmer but steady, the light of reparations still shines.
Reparations, according to the commonly accepted principles of the movement, still mean an apology, an atonement, and some form of compensation for the wrongs done. It means an acknowledgment, an admission of culpability and a national recognition of the horrible harm done to African Americans. Beyond that, there is massive disagreement on what a reparations settlement should look like.
Mostly, that is a logical result of a continuing lack of a viable, agreed-upon national reparations plan.
Enter the new National African American Museum of History and Culture, a massive structure currently being built on five acres on the Washington Mall in the nation’s capital. Scheduled to open in 2015, the museum was dedicated in February 2012, by President Obama on land which had formerly seen slave auctions and slave labor.
It will be a 350,000-square-foot structure with exhibit space above ground and underground. It will be the largest, free-standing institution in the world dedicated to works and collections germane to the birth, evolution and contributions of the Black American Experience.
Though it will be the 19th museum within the authority of the Smithsonian Museum, it will be directed by Dr. Lonnie Bunch, a Black professional who formerly lived and worked in Los Angeles. It will be monitored by an advisory board composed mainly of accomplished African Americans, and it will be built by an architectural firm headed by a Tanzanian designer.
The above-ground part of the structure will feature a bronze crown to symbolize Yoruba tradition and the Black slave metallurgists who toiled during the antebellum slave period in America. Visitors will also have to cross a small bridge to walk to the entrance, thus having to “cross the water” symbolically as enslaved Africans were forced to do.
The National African American Museum of History and Culture will include more than 30,000 artifacts relevant to Black life in America, including garments, identification badges, chains and manacles worn by slaves; maps of all Black townships and communities established by freedmen; Jim Crow signs on public drinking fountains and buses; Chuck Berry’s cherry red Cadillac; a collection of costumes from “The Wiz” musical (winner of numerous Tony awards, including costume, best musical, best director); James Brown’s cape and jump suit; Emmett Till’s casket; Harriet Tubman’s Bible, hymnal book and silk shawl; Louis Armstrong’s trumpet; gymnastic equipment used by Olympian Gabby Douglas; a Nat Turner Bible; a bi-plane piloted by a Tuskegee airman, etc.
A national call has been made for any significant artifacts held by the public that the museum could borrow, buy or lease.
So, is this, as several reparations activists have called it, a reparations victory?
The congressional and presidential approval, after 80 years of trying, provides a recognition of the importance of the Black American contribution to America. The $500 million cost provides financial remuneration in a tangible form. It will tell our story of the Black holocaust, American domestic slavery, Jim Crowism and the travails associated with the Black American Experience, along with the joy and celebration of Black life in America in art, music, writing and performance.
The National African American Museum of History and Culture will be headed by a Black man, designed by a Black man, and built in one of the most prestigious patches of land in the country and funded by public and private money. Like the 30-foot statue of Dr. Martin Luther King standing nearby, it will be a lasting national monument for the world to see. The Black Experience will be very large and on permanent display.
So, again, isn’t this a reparations result we can all embrace? Or will we once again dissolve into emotional dissent and argument about whether this museum is substantive enough to be considered real reparations?
Well, what say you, Black folk? What say you?
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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