Celebrating Black History Month is very different from celebrating Easter or Halloween—it’s not a time of faith rituals and jovial decorations. Instead, Black History Month (the duration of February), is a time to highlight the past and present of a group of people whose fundamental impact on the human experience is incalculable. Consider Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Jackson, Harriet Tubman, or Barack Obama, and you’ve named only four of the millions of people whose influence is infinite. While any celebration is a very personal thing, Black History Month is truly a time to dig deep within oneself to challenge previous notions and to inspire new ones to grow—ones that are founded in the stories and sciences of a vastly beautiful and dynamic population. And to then take these new found ideas and interact with society and its numerous perpetuation of Black history.
I recently visited the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit’s Cultural Center. The Wright Museum is neighbors with some of Detroit’s most prestigious landmarks like the Detroit Institute of Art and the Michigan Science Center. It stakes its own profound claim in the neighborhood with its large domed building that is a modern rendition of monumental African architecture. Inside the dome is a grand, circular room that leads to the rest of the museum.
The main exhibit is And Still We Rise: Our Journey Through African American History and Culture which begins with a geological approach to how the world, and especially Africa, came to be the shape it is today and why it contains a plethora of diamonds and other precious gems compared to other parts of the world. The exhibit transitions into a food market that represents the deep and lengthy history of pre-European and Arabian influence—a time the Western world seems very unfamiliar with. The market shows Africans bartering goods for goods – beads for beans, wood for weaving – as well as children playing around the functions of the adults. The diorama makes Africa seem like a peaceful, pleasant place to live. As quickly as the exhibit moves from gems to the lovely village, it pushed me into the Atlantic slave trade.
The bulk of the timeline covers the slave trade that began in the 16th century and lasted until the middle of the 19th century. Understandably, this part of the exhibit is challenging, disturbing, and exhausting. I spent nearly forty minutes wandering through slave cells, a slave ship, and a slave auction. It was forty minutes where my emotions were on high alert and my mind struggled to categorize the thousands of thoughts that were racing through it. While distressing, the exhibit was well-designed-often clever in its execution. For example, the slave ship featured creaky floors underfoot, and speakers projecting the sounds of waves breaking and sailors shouting.
Early on, the timeline set the precedent of surprise around each corner, and I would do any visitor a disservice by revealing all of what there is to encounter along the journey. So, I must skip ahead a hundred years, past the Underground Railroad and the Jim Crow Laws, to a “main street” downtown area that represents the former Hastings Street business corridor. This part of the exhibit features landmarks in Detroit that were tied to the existence of a District where black ownership was high and proud.
The other permanent exhibit at the Wright Museum is Inspiring Minds: African Americans in Science and Technology. I only had time to glance at this space, but I will absolutely head back to the museum soon to experience more of the African American history that moves me every day.
The Wright Museum also features a well-appointed gift shop filled with African art and jewelry, books, and souvenirs. The Museum is open to guests regularly from 9:00am-5:00pm Tuesday through Saturday and Sundays from 1:00pm to 5:00pm however for the month of February, they will also open their doors on Mondays from 9:00am to 5:00pm.
Have you had the opportunity to wander around The Wright Museum’s exhibits? What stuck out to you the most? Also, on Saturday, February 7, The Wright Museum is hosting the First Annual African World Bazaar from 12:00pm to 8:00pm. The event is free to the public and features fine artisans whose work include hand-made garments, jewelry, and food goods.