by Clarence* J. Fluker
On Saturday, Sept. 24, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture will open to the public for the first time. The design of the 400,000-square-foot, five level structure includes a series of small openings built to act as frames or “lenses” to remind visitors that the museum presents a view of America through the lens of the African American experience. Thanks to the visionary leadership of Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s founding director, visitors will also see contributions to history made by lesbian and gay people of African descent as their stories are woven into the fabric of the broader story of African American life.
“It’s difficult to tell the story of African American history and culture without acknowledging the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans who cover a spectrum of identities and experiences, including gender identities and orientations,” says Aaron Bryant, a curator at the museum. “Our goal is to tell the story of America’s history through an African American lens, and so the museum embraces and celebrates the fact that black communities are diverse, as is American culture and history.”
The 11 inaugural exhibitions will focus on the broader themes of history, culture and community intended to illustrate the major periods of African American history while telling an “unvarnished truth.” These exhibitions will feature some of the 34,000 artifacts collected by the institution thus far.
In the Taking the Stage exhibition, visitors will see a poster from the groundbreaking semi-documentary “Tongues Untied” by Marlon Riggs along with playbills from “The Colored Museum” by George C. Wolfe, and “A Raisin in the Sun,” by Lorraine Hansberry. LGBT contributions to dance are also represented in this exhibition with photographs by Jack Mitchell of Alvin Ailey and a clip from “D-Man in the Waters” by Bill T. Jones. Several paintings by LGBT artists including Malvin Gray Johnson, Earle Richardson, and Beauford Delaney will be showcased as part of the Visual Arts exhibition. In the same gallery, there will also be a piece by Lorna Simpson that she created for the Art Against AIDS project in 1989.
The Making a Way Out of No Way exhibit, has items and references to Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, including Baldwin’s passport. Images of gay activism are included the A Changing America gallery. Here, visitors will find a graphic image of a man at the 1995 Million Man March carrying a sign that starts with the statement, “I am a black, gay man.” The original photo was taken by photographer Roderick Terry. The exhibit also includes a gay liberation button. A myriad of other items connected with the African American LGBT experience will be featured across several exhibits.
Bryant asserts, “The lives and contributions of LGBT communities are an integral part of the larger story we tell. These stories aren’t isolated or segregated from the larger narrative, but are a natural and intrinsic part of the broader story we’re sharing regarding the broad contributions of African Americans to American history and culture.”
The work of the museum to be inclusive of all African Americans is not limited to the inaugural exhibitions. A commitment to diversity has been articulated by Director Bunch and put into action by hiring a diverse staff that brings multiple perspectives and experiences to the organization. Already looking to the future the museum has recently acquired photos into the collection from Black Lives Matter and Trans Lives Matter protests by photographers like Sheila Pree Bright, which are being considered for a possible exhibition in April 2017.
Currently, the museum is not processing new donations of objects but will put out a call again in 2017. If you have an object that you think they should know about, in the meantime, feel free to send an email to: NMAAHCCollections@si.edu. Items could include photographs and artifacts related to iconic moments, people, places and events that helped shift the way we see and think about American culture and history. In particular, Bryant calls out items related to Marsha P. Johnson and Stonewall; GMAD and other political organizations from across the country that fought for national recognition of African American LGBT rights, particularly related to healthcare, HIV/AIDS, and quality of life assistance during the 1980s and early 1990s; photos and artifacts of LGBT life during the Harlem Renaissance, Drag Balls from the mid-20thcentury to 1990s; along with items from social organizations, including the informal organizations formed in cities like Chicago, LA, New York, Atlanta, and DC where people came together as part of a social network of support.
When asked what is the main thing that people should know about the Museum of African American History and Culture, Bryant replies, “This museum has been a long time coming and now we’re here. We are a 21st century museum that represents America in all of its layers and complexities. And as an organization, we are as much about representing the present and future, as we are about preserving our nation’s past.”
To learn more about the museum and its opening visit, nmaahc.si.edu