Question: What do Washington, D.C., Fredericksburg, Va., and Charleston, S.C., have in common? Answer: Each city will, in the next three to five years, become home to a major African American museum site. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who led a 15-year battle to authorize a National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, sees a momentous shift in the making.
"We have this growing movement, not just in the South but around the nation," says Lewis, whose bill finally passed Congress with strong bipartisan support at the end of 2003 (see Black Issues, Dec. 18, 2003). "There's a growing interest in the whole of African American history--slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance," on up to the present.
Dr. Bernard Powers, a professor of history at the College of Charleston who is working closely with the International African American Museum project there, agrees. "When you look back on the 1960s and '70s, we were still at that time trying to convince people that something you could legitimately call slave religion and a slave family and slave culture existed," he says.
"The time is right," Powers adds. "This series of projects that is unfolding nationally is really, I think, the byproduct of several decades of research, teaching and publicity in African American history and studies. So this is the next logical step."
But Fath Ruffins, an historian at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, is not so sure.
"There's no doubt that (the) African American studies (discipline) and historical studies of topics in African American culture have been of tremendous importance. But I'm skeptical of the notion that the academy has had so much influence on popular culture," Ruffins says.
Ruffins, a 25-year veteran of the museum world and co-author of a forthcoming book on African American museums, thinks a far more significant factor is the vital influx of a young museum-going audience. Relatively removed from the civil rights struggle, this generation feels far less personal shame over slavery and is, thus, freer to express curiosity and share feelings and ideas.
"I think the key is …