- The Necessity of Remembrance: A Review of the Museum of African American History
“Of the People: The African American Experience,” 16,000 sq. ft. core exhibition at the Museum of African American History, 315 East Warren Avenue, Detroit, MI 48201–1443. Kimberly Camp, President. Ralph Appelbaum Associates, exhibit designers. Open 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
During the summer of 1997, Representative Tony Hall (D-Ohio), in a well-intentioned effort to lessen the tensions in race relations, sought to propose to the House a resolution of apology to African Americans for the harm that was done to their ancestors during slavery. This proposal came on the heels of President Clinton’s announcement that 1998 would be a year of assessment and dialogue on race in America. The two events received much media attention, and with a commission formed by the President and headed by the preeminent African American historian John Hope Franklin to canvass the nation to gather the views of Americans on the matter of race, there promises to be much more attention. 1
Of the two events, however, the greatest controversy has been over whether there should be an apology to African Americans for this country’s participation in the Peculiar Institution. The reactions have run the full range with many expressing skepticism that any good could come of the resolution while others say that there are more concrete matters regarding the black community that should be addressed. What really lies at the heart of the matter, however, is whether America is ready to come to grips with what slavery has done to this nation. It makes no real difference [End Page 420] that the Civil War, militarily won by the North but socially redeemed by the South, ended slavery. The social costs to African Americans and the rest of the nation continue to haunt us. On the one hand, we have had a history of social policy backed by the courts and social scientists of all stripes that has seen African Americans as having somehow suffered as a result of their race. On the other hand, there continues to be a struggle over whether this nation can ever get beyond the racial dilemma that has been with us for so long. In the end, given that white Americans are still in the majority and that racial tensions remain high, it will continue to be necessary to prod for a serious conversation on race.
The Museum of African American History in Detroit goes a long way toward providing the necessary materials and documentation for the beginning of that conversation. Billed as the largest museum of its kind in the country, the Museum of African American History (MAAH) has recently opened an impressive structure two blocks away from the two houses that comprised the original museum. The Museum was initially the idea of Dr. Charles Wright, a black Detroit physician, who entered into a long tradition of preserving the past record of African Americans. Calling the museum the “International Afro-American Museum” (IAM), Wright set about gathering funds from his friends and putting on fundraisers to be able to build the present day Museum of African American History (MAAH) at its present site in the University Cultural Center. But it was in 1992 that Detroiters displayed their pride in the venture by voting in Proposition F, which granted the city of Detroit permission to sell bonds for the construction of a new Museum of African American History. It is that building and its exhibits which are under review here.
If the purpose of a museum is to provide for the preservation of the past, to be an arena where people can remember struggles, joys, pains, and achievements and somehow relate them to their present, then the Museum of African American history has much to offer. The offering is crucial at a time when racial tensions have entered a new level given recent immigrations from the East and Latin America. Understanding the impact of the African Diaspora on the shaping of the western hemisphere provides the MAAH with the opportunity to help African Americans and all Americans to...