There is no more hallowed American ground, embracing the country’s history, main institutions, seats of government, memorials and monuments, than the National Mall, in Washington. Stretching from the Lincoln Memorial, going past the Washington Monument’s great needle and ending at the United States Capitol, the mall is flanked by all the great Smithsonian museums, including the National Gallery. A key story, however, had long been missing: that of black Americans in the country’s often bloody history.
The call for a dedicated museum to tell that story was made in 1915, but it was not until the 1970s that it was seriously considered. The allocation of a vacant site on the mall in 2006 and the opening last September of architect David Adjaye’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has enabled the tale to be told. Crowds have flocked to the museum, and entry tickets are sold out until March.
Before this museum opened, private initiatives collected and exhibited original documents and other materials relating to the history of black Americans. Bernard and Shirley Kinsey explain that their collection “grew out of our search to know who we are and where we came from, and a desire to share that knowledge with our son”.
“Rising Above: the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection”, currently showing at the University Museum and Art Gallery of the University of Hong Kong, is a rare opportunity to see original materials and art related to the black-American experience.
Exhibits related to slavery and racism predominate, and such items as letters from civil rights activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jnr bring that history alive. Particularly poignant is an original poster of simple text on cardboard: “HONOR KING: END RACISM!” This is one of the posters that was carried through the streets of Memphis, Tennessee, on April 8, 1968, just four days after King’s assassination in that city. A powerful accompanying photograph – of rows of Memphis women and men, black and white, walking in solidarity, carrying these posters – puts this now-artefact into its significant historical context.
As Derek Collins, dean of the university’s Faculty of Arts, reminds us: “One doesn’t have to be a historian to know that America wouldn’t exist today were it not for its immigrants, were it not for its slaves and were it not for its slow, and at times painfully difficult efforts to recognise first the human, then the civil rights of its citizens […] this is part of the American story that is still being told, even now, and unsettling the narrative that many of us think we already know about America.”
Displayed is a lithograph of some of the 22 black American men who sat in the United States Congress between 1870 and 1901; of them, at least 12 were born slaves. A chromolithograph print of black soldiers at Camp William Penn remind us that 180,000 black Americans served as Union soldiers during the civil war. And consider Phillis Wheatley, born around 1753 in West Africa, then sold into slavery. Purchased by a liberal Boston merchant, Wheatley was educated in Greek and Latin. On display here is a 1773 edition of her book of poetry, published in London, which was, at the time, only the third book of poetry published by an American woman.
Self-advancement saw the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1909. Its mission is “to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination”. A panoramic group photograph of the NAACP’s 29th annual conference, in 1938, depicts a humanist organisation that bravely, in a time when segregation was mandated by law, mixed men and women of all ages and races. The group’s current membership numbers 500,000.
The exhibition’s selection of contemporary art is, sadly, too conservative and adds little political or social commentary to complement the historical displays. However, Ava Cosey’s painting Ancestor’s Torch(2011) audaciously asserts that black Americans were responsible for a wide range of inventions and innovations. It’s an eclectic and debatable list that reflects the worldwide “American experience”, and includes such popular items as potato chips, the ironing board, the pencil sharpener, the ice-cream scoop – and even the guitar.
“Rising Above: the Kinsey African American Art and History Collection” is at University Museum and Art Gallery, the University of Hong Kong, 90 Bonham Road, Pok Fu Lam, until February 26.