Sunday, November 13, 2011

For All The World To See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights

Where: National Museum of American History

When: through November 27, 2011

This show highlights the impact and importance of visual images in the way that African Americans were portrayed prior to the civil rights movement and how imagery was used during the movement to show the American public what was happening in the South.

As you enter the exhibit, you can hear Paul Robeson singing "Ol' Man River" from Showboat.  There are several examples of African American portraiture on display, which reminded me of the exhibit I saw (in the same space) on African American portrait studios.

Much of the imagery in the first part of the show is quite derogatory to African Americans, as well as to women.  I realize that anti-women sentiments are not the focus of the show, but I could not help but notice.

Take This Hammer, a 1963 documentary was playing further along in the exhibit.  It shows James Baldwin talking to several young men, who believe that a black man will never be President of the United States.  Baldwin remonstrates with them, telling them that if they have this attitude, their prediction will prove true.  It was the only time I smiled in the entire exhibit; I can only hope that all of those  young men were alive to see the 2009 inauguration.  There was also some film footage of Jackie Robinson's first game in the major leagues.

There is a notice at the front of the exhibit warning people that the imagery is quite graphic and unpleasant.  This is absolutely true.  The most awful picture there is of Emmit Till, after his gruesome murder.  Although this photograph was never published in mainstream American newspapers, it was published in African American newspapers and served to galvanize resistance to the Jim Crow laws of the South.

Verdict: This exhibit is very well done and very important, especially as the civil rights era moves further into the past.  It is not a show, in my opinion, for young children.  The images depicted are quite disturbing, so if you go, and you should, be prepared.

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