On October 22, 2011, Union Station introduced to Kansas City its most racially radical exhibit to date, America I Am: The African American Imprint. The display was presented by Tavis Smiley, a Black author, advocate, and philanthropist who is popular for his radio shows and television broadcasts. The forty-seven-year old social leader created the exhibit to answer a question posed by pre-civil rights movement forerunner, W.E.B. DuBois. The question: “Would America have been America without her negro people?” Upon visiting, one will conclude a resounding no.
As onlookers walk into the gallery, they come face to face with this very question plastered in big, glowing orange letters on a wall. After voyaging into small rooms and hallways with introduction-styled artifacts, the journey begins. It starts in Africa, educating viewers on the beauty and riches of the motherland, a name that descendants have affectionately given to the continent. Spectators are able to admire original art created by Belin, Yoruba, and Mali tribes. Most importantly, they are able to gain insight on an authentic, civilized society of people ruled by kings and queens adorned in stunning attire and headdresses. What is perceived dismantles the taught idea of a savage, barbaric people unable to operate in a refined, cultured manner. In fact, just the opposite is exposed.
Continuing on, the exhibit commences the transition Africans that altered their lives from royalty to ruins. The raw and harrowing image of metal, rusted chains forced tightly around the necks, wrists, and ankles of Africans were carefully concealed in glass cases; an eerie feeling of the souls of those who were once coerced to wear them drifts at each station. Pistols operated to murder sick slaves, chains, and various types of whips were also on display. The Middle Passage sector of the exhibit illustrated the different places in which kidnapped Africans were sent to such as South America, North America, and Jamaica.
The next rooms show several stimulating personal items. Two frocks once belonging to Frederick Douglas – a man who escaped from slavery and became the father of the civil rights movement – lay next to each other. Dolls and blankets created by a slave woman are out for everyone to marvel at, as well. The rooms also show many different pieces slaves made: jugs, vases, bowls, and irons. Talented and skilled, these objects were not kept for themselves. Masters would take these items and sell them, pocketing whatever profit was gained.
As the exhibit persists, the era of freedom is launched with the flaunting of the Declaration of Independence (a document that did not free slaves, but freed America from British rule. The wording created by the founders of this document was used by many slaves to petition their rights as human beings to be free people), the 13th Amendment (ended slavery), 14th Amendment (gave Africans citizenship, making them African-Americans), and the 15th Amendment (gave African-Americans the right to vote).
Next, the civil rights movement is revealed. Astonishing artifacts are seen in various rooms. One of the most remarkable artifacts is the journal and Qur’an belonging to Malcolm X. Another staggering object is an original autographed copy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s first book, “Stride Toward Freedom.”
Moving forward, audiences wander into a startling room with a hanging Ku Klux Klan robe. A bright, red background hangs behind the malicious cloak, symbolizing the countless drops of blood spilled by the hands of KKK members. The advertising images of “coons,” “mammies,” and “black-faces” are also gawked.
Following this daunting corridor, watchers come into a room filled with spirituality as the power and influence of the Black church – the centerpiece of African-American culture – is paraded. Strong, inspirational sounds of gospel choirs fill the room’s space.
The last few rooms show Black achievements from the first Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, to Black sports teams and Black music. The stage attire of legends like Luther Vandross, Etta James, and Smokey Robinson are carefully draped behind glass walls.
Finally, the last room is a video demonstration of the exhibit. It is an audiovisual commentary of the influence and impact of African-Americans on America from beginning to present day.
The last day of the America I Am: The African American Imprint was originally on Sunday, January 8. However, due to popular demand, the exhibit was extended to Sunday, January 29. Though the tour has concluded in Kansas City, it is a traveling exhibit. More information can be found on America I Am: The African American Imprint by visiting www.Facebook.com/AmericaIAmExhibit