Opinion: A museum with nothing in it
By D.R.E. James
Like the articulate, well-educated gentleman he is, Dr. Heyward masterfully rolled out a thousand feet of silver-lining in a spiel he’d probably told a thousand other people, a thousand times before me.
There’s this saying I’ve heard that fits this situation beautifully: “If it’s not beneficial, it’s artificial.” This is how I feel about the International African American Museum currently under construction in Charleston, South Carolina. I know it’s becoming something of a trend — me bickering about Black Charlestonians always getting the scraps while others get plump from prosperity in a city they built, physically and culturally.
Being that I despise trends, I was hoping another journalist or inquiring mind would feel the same way I do and beat me to the punch to report on this before I had a chance. There have been murmurs of opposition from notable natives like Dr. Millicent Brown and the late great Dr. Ajuni Ofunniyin, but their gripes were centered around the museum prioritizing African heritage, rather than financial inclusion. Im not really interested in if Ishango Bone replicas, Nomoli figurines or any other artifact from ancient Africa. My concerns are more about monetary matters.
I sat back and not a single journalist nudged toward my sentiment. In fact, Michael Kimmelman from the New York Times exclaimed in a bold headline in March 2018 article,“Charleston Needs that African American Museum. And Now.”I pitied Mr. Kimmelman’s overzealous demand, but I can hardly blame him for his ignorance. Mr. Kimmelman just seems like the type of man who’d spend his jaunt in Charleston buying Hester Bateman sugar tongs from an estate sale on Legare Street, taking selfies in the rotunda of the Gibbes and drinking hard seltzers with his old Harvard buddies at the Wind Jammer on Isle of Palms. He’s a world-class journalist, but I don’t think he’s privy to the underbelly of the Holy City, and if he was, he’d know that the last thing Charleston needs is this museum.
These stats are beyond phenomenal, and should not be understated, but whenever these folks fatten their pockets and head home to Columbus, Ohio, or Oakland, California, how will any of this benefit Black Charlestonians?
So since I’m always bragging to my nephew Malachi and everybody else to the man of the people, a megaphone for the marginalized, trend or not, I had to write this.
Of course, the ground-breaking ceremony last Summer doubled as a civic pep rally. Congressman Jim Clyburn was there, along with fellow congressman Joe Cunningham, Mrs. Lucille Whipper, Chairman of the museum’s board, Wilbur Johnson, a young lady from Burke High School, former mayor Joe Riley, current mayor John Tecklenburg, and even Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr the mayor of Freetown, Liberia, flew in for the occasion. They also seemed so happy and hopeful, clenching their shovels, smiling for photos. I wish I could’ve been as gleeful as they looked in those photos but I just kept thinking about Mrs. Helen Hill, CEO of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau proposing a champagne toast with writers from Travel and Leisure Magazine giddy to get back to their MacBook Pro’s and peck away at their feel-good puff pieces about this museum.
But before I even opened my notebook to write this, I reached out to the Museum’s Chief Operating Officer, Dr. Elijah Heyward III, knowing it would have been disingenuous and out of my character if I had not. Within the first 60 seconds of our phone conversations, I asked him bluntly: How is your museum going to benefit Black? Like the articulate, well-educated gentleman he is, Dr. Heyward masterfully rolled out a thousand feet of silver-lining in a spiel he’d probably told a thousand other people, a thousand times before me. He gloated that this will be a “place of uplift,” reference, squeezed in a Misty Copeland reference, and after offering a hardhat tour of the site, assured me that upon completion, they would vigorously seek ways to reinvest into the community. He then directed me towards the museum’s Director of Education and Outreach, Brenda Tindal.
Being that I despise trends, I was hoping another journalist or inquiring mind would feel the same way I do and beat me to the punch to report on this before I had a chance.
I already knew the museum would be designed by Pei Cobb Freed and Partners, the same folks who designed the Four Season Hotel in New York City and that iconic glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris. I knew the executive architects would be Moody Nolan, the largest African American architecture firm in the country. I knew the construction company they hired to build this museum, Turner Brownstone is also Black-Owned, so is Hood Design Studio, whose namesake Walter Hood had been granted the prestigious MacArthur Genius fellowship and will be tasked with curating the museum’s botanical splendor. These stats are beyond phenomenal, and should not be understated, but whenever these folks fatten their pockets and head home to Columbus, Ohio, or Oakland, California, how will any of this benefit Black Charlestonians?
Will the museum allow the children who the city banned from the tourist area downtown to come make money folding their palmetto roses? Will they hire Black Charlestonians to sell sweet tea, chicken salad sandwiches, sweetgrass baskets and key chains in the gift shop and café? Will they hire Black Charlestonians as security guards to corral rambunctious 2nd graders running through the “I Am” Hall or as maintenance technicians to change light bulbs in the mezzanine? Will they hire Black Charlestonians as landscapers to keep the African Ancestor Garden pristine? What about Black Charlestonians to lecture and guide the experiences of the Social Justice Lab or Center for Family History? Maybe I’m just being as overzealous as I claimed Michael Kimmelman is, but I think the museum should be staffed 100% with Black Charlestonians. Is this too much to ask?
He’s a world-class journalist, but I don’t think he’s privy to the underbelly of the Holy City, and if he was, he’d know that the last thing Charleston needs is this museum.
Even though I think that $100 million dollars they raised (with donations from Sony, Michelin, National Football League and City of North Charleston) could be put to better use, construction is underway. There is no doubt that this International African American Museum will be the most dazzling trophy on the city’s “Museum Mile,” but my fear is the glare will obstruct the city, the country, the world from recognizing the real issues that face the city of Charleston, much like the 2016 Olympics distracted from the dangerous and squalid, third-world realities of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro from us with images of Usain Bolt sprinting toward gold medals. I’m worried that people will consider this museum 47,000 square feet worth of reparation and reconciliation and neglect the real issues.
The moral of this manifesto is: Black people in this country and Charleston, in particular, are tired of being celebrated and not compensated. If the International African American Museum doesn’t make it essential that Black Charlestonians are 100% benefactor in the financial prosperity this museum will offer, then this will be another example of the city exploiting Black people all over again.