Tavis Smiley’s exhibit about the African-American experience has rolled into Washington, D.C., just in time for Black History Month.
Two years after launching America I AM: The African American Imprint, Tavis has finally brought the exhibit to the nation’s capital. The National Geographic Museum in D.C. is the halfway point for the exhibit, which seeks to answer W.E.B. DuBois’ immortal question: "Would America have been America without her Negro people?"
America I AM uses 12 themed galleries and four theaters to emphatically answer "No!" The exhibit is packed with artifacts that illustrate 500 years of history in brilliant fashion, utilizing nearly every sense to submerge visitors in a journey from the shores of Africa all the way to the steps of the White House.
Tavis has never been one to half-step, and he expected nothing less than the best from AEI, which also produced the world-famous King Tut Exhibit. Thankfully, Tavis didn’t have to get too rough with the good people at AEI. He said that as a result of his drive to see the exhibit done well, America I Am is "the biggest, baddest, boldest experience ever to tell the history of our people."
From art to science to religion and even everyday tasks, America I AM shows that Americans can’t get through the day without encountering Black peoples’ contributions. Pulling all of it together didn’t start easily for Tavis, who admittedly knew nothing about curating a project like this. The radio and TV host explained that the initial idea for America I AM popped up when he visited Jamestown, Virginia, years ago.
"When you go to Jamestown and you stand in that sacred space, you get moved in ways I can’t even describe," Tavis told S2S. "It really made me think about how this story could be told in a grander scale." He explained that, at first, he wasn’t sure how he would accomplish that goal, but in speaking to his friends and colleagues, such as Dr. Cornell West, America I AM was born and everything fell into place.
Many people generously donated rare artifacts, such as Prince’s guitar from Purple Rain and the key to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s jail cell, to America I AM. And while getting his hands on the original copy of a Tupac poem was pretty amazing, Tavis said the "crown jewel[s]" of the exhibit are the actual Doors of No Return, which Africans passed through before being herded onto slave ships bound for America.
While S2S enjoyed seeing Rosa Parks’ arrest card, Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet and a flag carried by Buffalo soldiers, the best part of America I AM was seeing how excited students from Neval Thomas Elementary School were about the exhibit.
Although students could name many prominent figures displayed in the entrance of America I AM, such as President Barack Obama, Harriet Tubman, James Brown and Oprah Winfrey, they were confused about other icons they saw. Specifically, they mistook Isaac Hayes for Rick Ross and The Supremes for the fictional Dreamgirls.
You can’t be too mad at them, though. They’re young and they’re learning, but the TV host thinks it is a perfect example of why America I AM is vital to the Black community.
"It was just funny. That’s why the exhibit is so important," Tavis explained."This is a story that’s got to be passed on through the generations. By being able to see those kids and explain, ‘No, that’s not Rick Ross, that’s Isaac Hayes; no, those aren’t the Dreamgirls, that’s Diana Ross and the Supremes.’"
He added, "The most gratifying thing is those kids I was just talking to. Their eyes light up because they’re learning things. They’re seeing things they did not know."
More D.C. area students and their families will have plenty of opportunities to learn even more from the exhibit, as America I AM runs from February 2 to May 1 at the National Geographic Museum.
— Sonya Eskridge