Guard Tower and Cell Help Tell 'Unvarnished Truth' of Black America ; Washington Museum Explores History of Slavery through Louisiana Prison

By Cohen, Patricia | International Herald Tribune, July 11, 2013 | Go to article overview

Guard Tower and Cell Help Tell 'Unvarnished Truth' of Black America ; Washington Museum Explores History of Slavery through Louisiana Prison


Cohen, Patricia, International Herald Tribune


The African-American museum to open in Washington is charged with the dual tasks of recounting the oppression of blacks in America and celebrating their accomplishments.

To some people, the name of Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, brings to mind the country's oldest prison rodeo, which draws thousands of tourists while raising money for charity. Others think of it as a repository for fearsome criminals -- murderers, rapists and kidnappers -- who have earned their average sentence of 93 years. Many remember it as having once been one of the most brutal and corrupt institutions in the post-Civil War South, the nearest kin to slavery that could legally exist.

All of these associations and more will compete when an old guard tower and a cell from the prison are installed in the forthcoming National African American Museum for History and Culture in Washington, a place with the complex mission of presenting an official narrative of black life in the United States.

Paul Gardullo, a curator for the museum who negotiated with officials at Angola, said it was looking for items to illustrate the dehumanizing incarceration of blacks in the 20th century and that practice's link to slavery. "We wanted to tell a story of Angola as a place that still carries the legacy of slavery with it," he said. "It is a powerful story and a story that our museum needs to be sharing with the public."

In a museum charged with the dual tasks of recounting the oppression of blacks in America and celebrating their accomplishments, however, the opportunities for clashing interpretations are manifold. Museum officials, for instance, were initially uncertain whether to accept the handcuffs that a police officer in Cambridge, Massachussets, used when he arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr., the African-American Harvard professor, in 2009, outside Mr. Gates's home. The manacles are now part of the collection, though the museum director, Lonnie Bunch, said he was not sure if they would be displayed.

Exhibiting a guard tower 21 feet, or 6 meters, tall, from a prison that now boasts that it is one of the country's safest and most progressive, can be similarly delicate. "It serves as a sort of Rorschach test," Randall L. Kennedy, a Harvard law professor who writes frequently about race and the law, said of the tower.

"I imagine there will be many, many flash points," he added. Mr. Kennedy speculated about the museum's possible treatment of Elijah Muhammad, the longtime leader of the Nation of Islam, who died in 1975. "He called white people 'devils,"' Mr. Kennedy said. "Will he show up? I bet he will, and I bet he'll be treated pretty respectfully too. You could have a really nice fight about that."

Controversy, though, is fine, said Leslie Harris, an associate professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta: "The role of museums is to challenge us and provoke us a bit."

Ms. Harris, Mr. Kennedy and other scholars agreed that the reaction to provocative museum acquisitions like the guard tower would depend wholly on the explanation and context provided by curators -- something the public will not be able to see until the museum opens in 2015.

"The museum will tell the American story through the African- American lens," Mr. Bunch said. "It's a story that's full of controversy, and we're not going to shy away from that. What's important to me is to collect artifacts that tell the full story." He added that the distinguished African-American historian John Hope Franklin had always told him, "If you tell the unvarnished truth, people will be changed."

Work on the Angola project has started. …

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