The fundraising success of the International African American Museum does not necessarily assure its ultimate triumph as an uplifting educational and cultural institution.
As preeminent historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson eloquently stated in his classic work The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933), “the mere imparting of information is not education.”; as we easily note from the contemporary experience with social media, “Twitter wars” and “fake news”.
The many well-intentioned donors who have committed a reported seventy-five million dollars in monetary resources, and community scholars, activists and other interested parties investing over twenty years of in-kind contributions, have done so expecting that IAAM will be a transformative institution.
Some hope that it will re-move the brainwashing of slavery and re-shape the centuries-old disparaging, incomplete and oppressive narrative about people of African descent in this country and throughout the world. To reach that objective, IAAM must not only impart information, but reveal new conclusions, analyses and truths.
Unfortunately, the planning process for IAAM over more than two decades deliberately has been more politically than intellectually inspired. It has avoided fundamental human rights issues as outlined in Resolution #217 of the United Nations’ adopted Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) calling for indigenous populations to define themselves, their history, culture and world view. In fact, local African American community voices (including experts in African American and Museum Studies) have had their attempts to raise substantive questions concerning IAAM ignored.
Among the many concerns unaddressed by the IAAM board are:
• Refusal to create an embedded, viable financial sustainability plan that would minimize a constant search for public and private endowment funds to assure its future. This, sadly, is a deliberately missed opportunity for economic and cultural community building activity, especially needed by African American youth. Adoption of a proposal to house the museum within a Black-owned waterfront hotel would have provided an engine for future developments.
• Refusal to create an ongoing, transparent mechanism for public input into the planning process, including an informed, Afro-centric philosophical statement of its mission, goals and objectives.
• No believable commitment to confront and refute the many manifestations of white racism in Charleston, its causes and continuing effects. This demands an official critique and de-construction of white supremacy, not simply a recognition of Black contributions and achievements (i.e. the plantation paradigm). The unparalleled extended history of Africa and its descendants cannot accept such chronological and factual limitations.
• Failure to offer a publicly stated commitment to proportional budgetary awarding of contracts to African American-owned businesses. Not even a Black-owned restaurant on-site as an indication of the value of continuing Gullah cuisine prepared by actual Gullah people for their own financial benefit.
• The racial composition of the policy-making board (majority white) does not reflect this as a supposedly African American museum. Without accepting the fundamental principle of indigenous participation and control in all aspects of the project, IAAM has indeed moved to deposit some funds in the Black-controlled C.O. Federal Credit Union and adopted a proposal for installing a replica/exhibit of the world’s first known mathematical and scientific device, the iconic African Ishango Bone on the premises. But, these are not operational principles respectful of the many suggestions and actions forthcoming from the Black community, only hard-won individual concessions after many years of community efforts begging to be heard.
• IAAM has never acknowledged nor respected local African American museum building initiatives, such as the Avery Research Center, Charleston County Civil Rights Museum and Hall of Fame, and the Amen Song Museum, which showed potential for success but lacked official support. Some continuing roles for these and other African American-led historical initiatives should exist in association with IAAM.
• Architectural plans do not reflect an understanding of significant African or African American contributions to historic Charleston design and the Lowcountry-built environment. IAAM might benefit from an architectural re-design, as was granted to accommodate the concerns of displeased Mt. Pleasant community members regarding the proposed Medal of Honor Museum. A basic premise of Public History is the acknowledgement of community rights, misgivings and concerns.
• Current architectural plans do not even provide for a physical facility that meets required museum curatorial standards. Since IAAM lacks a permanent collection of historical artifacts to exhibit, the architectural design flaw will negatively affect its ability to borrow treasured, often irreplaceable collections of artifacts from other historical museums. People visit museums to view edifying artifacts that cannot be found elsewhere.
• The continuous misleading announcements, changes of venue, impromptu re-scheduling and cancellation of the board’s so-called “public” meetings may be violations of law, and exemplify poor Public History practice.
If IAAM is to attain its professed and widely publicized educational goals and objectives, and be true to its stated mission; it must address these crucial community concerns or become yet another example of the exploitation of African Americans, their history and culture, in real dollars and cents terms, exploiting also a continuing public need for emotional uplift and some symbol of viable social change. Such exploitation would further miseducate the world about African and African American history and culture, their current plight, past and present.
The African American community, financial and in-kind donors, contributors and supporters must demand better of IAAM. Lest, centuries of racist oppression become institutionalized anew.
Wilmot A. Fraser, Ph.D.
Millicent E. Brown, Ph.D.
The writers are native, African American Charlestonians and retired professors of African American Studies