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African American History IS American History


African American history taught and understood as part of American history, not a separate subject, is the focus of an in-depth exhibit at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia.

People come from all over the world to this rare book museum and library to see the original manuscript of James Joyces' Ulysses, the extensive collection of books and drawings by children's author Maurice Sendak and the preserved living room of famous American poet Marianne Moore.

On a warm September evening, Rosenbach museum members gathered to see an unusually diverse collection of rare books, letters, posters and artifacts, all from the Rosenbach's private collection and all dealing with the experience of blacks in America. The Look Again exhibit's message is laid out in its subtitle: 'African American History IS American History,' meaning there really is no way to learn or discuss American history without recognizing that African American history is involved at each step of the nation's development.

According to Diane Turner, the exhibit's guest curator, "In American history you have things which are very complex. And I think it does the American public a disservice when we only get one perspective of what the American experience is all about." The African American history professor says when these two histories are viewed as inseparable, a deeper understanding of the complex issues surrounding race in America is possible.

As an example, she points to the nation's Founding Fathers -- people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. "When you look at [them] and their signing of these various documents that begin the nation, [you see] the contradiction between talking about liberty and freedom and many of these Founding Fathers being slave holders. So how do you come to a contradiction like that, slavery and freedom?" She answers her own question: "You look at what early America means on the one hand from the perspective of the slave holder. They might be attempting to justify the enslavement of Africans and refer to them as 'the slave,' which you know is property and chattel. But on the other side, if you look at it from the perspective of the Africans themselves who were enslaved, you begin to see one of the richest stories in the themes about freedom. Because slavery is not about good or evil. It's about people of African Education. Director and curator Bill Adair says African American history must be seen as an integral part of American history. "The history of race, the history of racism, the connection between whites and blacks and their relationship is central to the story of American history," he says. "So whenever you bring out a document related to American history, in some way you can tell the story of African Americans as well."

The exhibit includes rare books and manuscripts from the 18th and early 19th centuries. It also showcases handwritten letters dealing with slavery penned by Presidents Jefferson and Lincoln. There are copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation, along with political posters designed by African American artists, and an original receipt showing the purchase of slaves.

Bill Adair points to one of his favorite artifacts in the exhibit: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. He explains that it's the first book published by an African American, "a little girl named Phyllis Wheatley who was kidnapped in West Africa, sold when she was 8 to a family in Boston. She learned to read and write with her family and she was brilliant. So she learned Latin and before she knew it she was writing poetry, classically-based poetry, really sophisticated poetry." Wheatley published her first poem when she was in her teens and her first book when she was 20. But Adair says she couldn't find a publisher in the American colonies. "This is 1773! No American publisher is going near a collection of poems written by an African-American slave. But she was able to publish her book in Britain and she also traveled to Britain on like a celebrity book tour and it became the toast of the town in London in 1773. Eventually, an American publisher did publish her book -- in 1786. So that's one of the highlights of our collections."

Another book in the Rosenbach exhibit is Journal of a Residency on a Georgian Plantation. Written by a white woman, Fannie Kemble, it illustrates what was happening in the anti-slavery movement in the 1830s. "Fannie Kemble was married to a slave holder," explains Diane Turner. "She was a woman of European descent who took the side of those enslaved and she was punished by her husband for that. In fact, he ended up humiliating her and beating her in front of the enslaved Africans because she was concerned about their treatment." Turner says that part of American history is often overlooked.

Also on display is a manuscript by nationally-known African American author Linda Goss. She will be holding story-telling workshops at the library in connection with the exhibit.

While the actual museum exhibit may appeal to an adult audience, the scope of this project is much wider. A group of students from Philadelphia public schools will spend the entire academic year working with these primary source materials. They will produce a movie, do puppet theater, develop web sites and even compose a piece of music, all based on what they learn. They are the first group of kids in Philadelphia to apply this new approach to history. And while it may take years for this idea to reach classrooms around the world, Rosenbach curator Bill Adair calls the "Look Again" exhibit an important step toward advancing the museum's mission: to use its collections to inspire creativity, curiosity and inquiry.