After attending the Americans for the Arts Convention in Nashville last month my wife and I went on to Memphis to explore another city that we had not visited. As part of that trip we went to the National Civil Rights Museum. (On a personal note, I had not registered the museum’s subtitle “At the Lorraine Motel” so when I arrived I had the breath knocked out of me seeing “the balcony.”) Coming so soon after the conference session I discussed in The Self-Centered Pursuit of Diversity, I was primed to consider issues of race and class.
It’s my understanding that the museum has just re-opened after extensive renovations. I’ll say I was very impressed. It handles the history and legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, the intense era of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and Dr. King’s assassination. I was particularly struck by the inclusion of contemporary justice issues. No museum could possibly cover all the territory that “civil rights” implies nor could one satisfy everyone, but it was one of the most riveting history museums I’ve ever seen.
The moment (beyond seeing the sight of Dr. King’s assassination) that will most stay with me was seeing an older African-American woman in the area displaying the conditions in which slaves were kept on the ships from Africa to the New World. She was crying–not just sobbing–and attempting to hide that fact. I have had powerful moments seeing the realities of my Norwegian ancestors–both in Norway and the Midwest. But those were simple historical facts of hardship, probably some desperation, and courage. They are nothing, nothing like what that woman must have been experiencing.
At the very great risk of trivializing an unspeakably deep response to incomprehensible human evil, the point in the context of this blog is to be aware of how different the life experiences of those around us, whose background and cultures we do not share, are. The arts can certainly provide opportunities for healing or reconciliation, but developing the relationships that will allow those opportunities to be developed requires humility, respect, and serious efforts to understand.