By John Larson
They range from household names to people most Americans have never heard of. Some have been deceased for more than 50 years, while others are actively making an impact in the present day. From politics to science, entertainment to sports, they are African-American men whose accomplishments are now on display in Tacoma.
“Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth.” is a new exhibit at Washington State History Museum that examines important contributions made by black men from the early 1900s to the present. Created by the Smithsonian Institute Travelling Exhibit Service, it debuted in Cincinnati, with Tacoma the second stop on a national tour.
The exhibit begins in a room with two video screens of photos, interspersed with words written by James Baldwin. The rest takes up the larger exhibit space on the top floor. Instead of walls that are typically installed for exhibits, the space is open, with much of the material mounted on metal scaffolding that snakes through the space.
The exhibit is divided into six sections – imagining, myth breakers, storytellers, fathers, catalysts and community. During a press tour on Jan. 7, Mary Mikel Stump, the museum’s audience engagement director, said this allows visitors to view some the men through a new lens, letting us see them as whole individuals. Their stories are told with the typical information panels, along with photographs and a few short videos. In addition, artists have created depictions of the subjects, making this as much of an art exhibit as a history exhibit. “It is a great addition,” she said, noting that art is a great way for visitors to access these men.
The exhibit is more than a celebration of an individual’s legacy. “This is not just a story of them, but a story of our country,” she remarked.
John H. Johnson shined the media spotlight by publishing magazines such as “Jet” and “Ebony.” A panel explains the impact this made, as national publications had previously been devoted almost entirely to the experience of white Americans. Joe Prytherch painted him as a typical executive, seated at a desk wearing a suit and tie, with covers of his magazines framed behind him.
Andrew Young was a civil rights activist as a young man. Later he delved into politics, serving in Congress and as United States Ambassador to the United Nations, then two terms of Atlanta in the 1980s. A photo depicts him with the city skyline in the back. Nina Chanel Abney painted him wearing a suit, with colorful hearts and circles surrounding him.
LeBron James is one of the all-time greats on the basketball court. Having won NBA titles with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers, James now plays with the Los Angeles Lakers. In this exhibit, the focus is on what he does off the court. An information panel explains what his foundation has done for at-risk youth and their families. Shaun Leonardo’s two paintings depict his hands, with no basketball in sight.
All baseball fans should know Jackie Robinson for breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947. Some may be familiar with Curt Flood, who won a landmark legal battle that ushered in the era of free agency. But most are probably unfamiliar with Romare Bearden. A ball player in his youth, in the early 1930s some people urged him to head into the big leagues because his skin tone was light enough it was felt he could pass for being white. He declined and became an artist instead.
Venus and Serena Williams are well known to tennis fans. A panel in the father section has pictures of them as grown women and as young girls with their dad, Richard Williams. It is accompanied by a poem about him written by Nikki Giovanni.
Charles Bolden was an astronaut who became the first black administrator of NASA. Braulio Amado’s colorful portrait has him in an astronaut suit, surrounded by Saturn and other planets.
Music was a way for black men to attain fame and fortune when many other career fields denied them entrance, so it is fitting some musical legends appear in the exhibit. An information panel gives James Brown props for his showmanship as well as his business acumen. It is next to two men who later did the same, Prince and Michael Jackson.
Jazz icons Miles Davis and John Coltrane have information panels, along with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, who all embodies “the intellectual aesthetics of cool.”
Dick Gregory was painted by Shaunte Gates sitting while holding a bouquet of red roses, with theater marquee signs in the background. Mikel Stump said she knew about him primarily as an activist, as opposed to a comedian. To emphasize the latter, a panel about Gregory is accompanied by photos of four men who followed him on the stand-up circuit: Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle.
Several current pop culture figures are in the exhibit. Film director, producers and screenwriter is known for hit movies such as “Creed” and “Black Panther.” Alfred Conteh painted him in a serious pose, fingers to forehead in hues of blue and black against a bright orange background. An information panel explains the cultural impact made by rapper Kendrick Lamar. Derrick Adams uses geometric patterns for his face and clothing in his painting.
Dr. Rob Gore is a good example of a contemporary black man making a difference that most people have never heard of. Born in 1976, he is a physician in New York City. After treating many young males who were victims of urban violence in the emergency room, he started a non-profit organization that teaches youth conflict resolution tactics and other important life skills.
“Men of Change” is well worth a visit to the museum, where it is on display through March 15.