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American I Am

"America I AM Our Foundation" Gallery, Photo by Carol H. Feeley

If you’re like me, you know the basic facts related to the African-American experience in America. But upon seeing the new exhibit at Union Station—America I Am—I came away realizing that I hadn’t given a lot of thought to how those events impacted the people who lived them, let alone how they helped shape our country.

Tavis Smiley

I was fortunate to join a media preview hosted by Tavis Smiley, the PBS journalist, author and philanthropist who helped develop the traveling exhibit. Smiley wanted to chronicle the imprint that African Americans have had on American life. To do so, he recruited one of the top exhibition companies (the same company that did King Tut) as well as a remarkable collection of artifacts. Make no mistake; this is quite possibly the most impressive collection of African-American history ever brought together in one place.

You start in Africa with works that show the talent and craftsmanship of the native peoples. You’re left to wonder what these cultures would have developed into if history hadn’t changed their fate.

The most poignant part of the exhibit chronicles slavery. A set of doors from 1700s Ghana dubbed the “Doors of No Return” are the last set of doors that Africans passed through before boarding ships bound for a life of slavery. Shackles, chains and branding irons brought home the instruments of cruelty used along the way. I found myself imagining the men or women locked in those chains, and wondering what they must have thought as they were crammed onto slave ships.

Some of the objects that were common during this era seem absurd today. An elegant matching vanity set belonging to the lady of a plantation features a brush, comb, mirror…and whip to keep the slaves in line. In another room, a set of wooden children’s dolls–dressed in white Klu Klux Klan robes and hoods. In another case, a travel magazine for African Americans that details the hotels, restaurants and places in which they would be allowed entry.

Other galleries focus on military, religion, civil rights, sports and pop culture. In the civil rights room alone are the bars from the jail cell that once held Martin Luther King, Jr., and the chair he sat in while on trial. Next to that, Rosa Parks fingerprint arrest card and an original document from the Brown vs. Board of Education case (on loan from the National Archives in Kansas City).

The depth and quality of the exhibit, means you’ll find amazing surprises around every corner. In one room, Malcolm X’s personal copy of the Quran, complete with his hand-written notes. Tucked in the corner of a case containing sports memorabilia are two of Jesse Owen’s medals from Hitler’s Berlin Olympics. In another room, Muhammad Ali’s boxing robe that he wore while training for the “Rumble in the Jungle.” A few cases away, one of Prince’s iconic guitars, as well as the typewriter Alex Haley used to write “Roots.”

This is just a taste of America I Am. As Smiley said, the exhibit seeks to answer a question first posed by W.E.B. Du Bois: “Would America have been America without her Negro people?” After experiencing these more than 200 artifacts, I have a clearer answer, and I think you will too.

America I Am is at Union Station Kansas City through Jan. 8. For hours and tickets information, visit our America I Am page.

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