A new take on black history

My visit to the California Science Center’s black history exhibit this week was intended as rainy day relief; an emotional lift and respite for me from those relentless images of Haitian grief.

I hauled my college daughter along because it seemed a fitting way to celebrate the holiday honoring Martin Luther King. She had just wrapped up a freshman “ethnic studies” course where the historical narrative seemed to be WASPs against the rest of us.

It reminded me that history depends on who’s doing the telling. When I was her age, people of color were asterisks, not narrators. Tomorrow’s version will depend on today’s storytellers.

This exhibit -- “American I AM: The African American Imprint” -- leaves no doubt about its vision: to “celebrate nearly 500 years of African American contributions to the U.S.”


So I wasn’t surprised by the visitors wending their way through the gallery:

The trio of elderly black women, trading recollections before a display of Jim Crow-era “White Ladies” and “Colored Women” markers. The teenagers in hip-hop gear crowding around a glass case featuring Tupac Shakur’s handwritten lyrics. A family of five from Inglewood, wearing designer jeans and Barack Obama T-shirts.

I noticed the slight, bespectacled white man who studied the giant slave trade diagram for 20 minutes before moving on. The silver-haired woman talking in Spanish to her bored young grandson about Rosa Parks. The young Asian woman in a UC Davis hoodie, who listened dutifully at every exhibit to the narrated monologue on her rented headset.

And the pretty blond woman explaining the horrors of the Middle Passage -- the torturous voyage of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic -- to her wide-eyed, auburn-haired daughter.

In Los Angeles, at least, American WE ARE ALL, it seems.


The exhibit, created by broadcaster Tavis Smiley, is on its third stop in a 10-city, four-year tour. It opened in Exposition Park in October and runs through April. On Monday, the day I visited, more than 700 people bought tickets to see it.

It has gotten off to a slow start in Los Angeles, where the black population is not as concentrated or politically active as the cities of its previous stops, Philadelphia and Atlanta.

“The challenge here is we crave entertainment . . . but we have a problem appreciating culture,” Smiley said.

But the upside of Los Angeles, he told me, is the diversity it offers. “L.A. is truly a microcosm of the world. So there’s no better place to introduce Americans to each other.”

Field trips from local schools come during the week, while weekend visitors tend to be families, church groups and history buffs, said Tamika Lamison, who coordinates the exhibit’s docents.

The journey begins with an explanation of slavery -- complete with artifacts like a slave ship manifest and ancient shackles and chains.

The docents keep a box of tissues on hand, “because some people get pretty worked up about it,” Lamison said. “You look at these things, and you can imagine the pain.”

“It’s not just black people,” she said. “The little children are bothered by it. . . . They don’t understand, how could people be so mean. And we get a very visceral reaction from Jewish people. They feel a connection to us because of their history; of what’s been done to their people.”

I understood what she meant as I watched my own daughter wrestling with a new awareness of things she’s already learned in school.

The slave trade looks different when, instead of reading a textbook about the Civil War or the importance of the cotton gin, you are staring at a life-size image of Africans shackled and stacked like cordwood on a slave ship.


The exhibition starts on a somber note, but it ends with a triumphal tone, chronicling the influence of black culture on this country’s politics and pulpits, stages and sports.

Still, it was sobering to me to watch the young people in the gallery struggling to absorb what they heard and saw.

How does a young girl reconcile the promise of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, on exhibit in one glass case, with the receipt in another from the 1776 sale of slaves, $100 for a Negro woman and her child? I understand those parents who -- like me -- try to tie their children to our history, even though we cannot know what images they will remember in this sweep from slavery to the presidency.

The snapshot I choose from my exhibit visit is quintessential Los Angeles:

A rambunctious little boy named Josh, brown curls bouncing as he mimics Michael Jackson.

His African American father leaning against the wall, absently fiddling with his iPhone.

And his young, blond mother explaining to his brown-skinned sister why Rosa Parks refused to stand and Martin Luther King was behind bars.