Write if you will: but write about the world as it is and as you think it ought to be … Write about our people: tell their story. You have something glorious to draw on, begging for attention. — Lorraine Hansberry, “To Be Round, Gifted and Black” (1969)
The Smithsonian tells American stories.
When the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) convened a group of thinkers over five years ago to help us conceptualize an exhibition called “Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth,” we could not have imagined where we are today. The exhibition was born before the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything. Before George Floyd asked to breathe. Before the significant movement against systemic racism in 2020. What we did know, was that it was imperative to reveal the full landscape of stories that incorporate the ideals of America. And, for this exhibition, illuminate the Black men who embody those stories and have found inspiration from their community and those who have come before them.
If we would show the full landscape of heroes and leaders that reside truthfully on the American landscape, we would reveal stories that embody the ideas of America and they reside within Black male bodies. If we could do that, we could be part of the dialogue that situates Black men as human; not to be feared but to be understood as part of the hope and aspirations of all of us. Human. And, the stories would always be true. We wanted visitors to encounter African American men — some known, others less familiar — who exemplify the positive qualities that have allowed them to succeed in the face of daunting societal odds. At a time when authentic stories about African American men seemed missing from contemporary narratives, the idea seemed timely and important.
“Men of Change” was borne out of the discussions with an array of African American scholars and intellectuals from academia and the arts to media and cultural organizations. The advisors insisted on one organizing fact: don’t be in dialogue with the stereotypes of Black bodies and Black presence in America; offer the authentic voice of the African American journey — just offer the truth. Through multiple discussions, we found an ideal cross-section of 20th and 21st century men who have influenced American history and culture in various fields, including business, religion, activism, athletics, science, and the arts.
The exhibition is organized around seven themes: storytellers, myth-breakers, fathering, community, imagining, loving, and catalysts. The men were chosen not just for their success in any one field, but for their commitment to altering society, community, and culture in affirming ways. Many men were discussed, and it was difficult to finalize the list of who would be featured in the exhibition. Twenty-seven men are spotlighted as Men of Change, and—because we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before—an additional 60 are reflected through images and quotes.
Developed to tour to cultural organizations around the country, the exhibition incorporates language reflecting an African American aesthetic and embraces an idea of exhibition as art. The cadence borrows from hip hop. It uses a call and response style with a collage of language and image to present these narratives.
The challenges of last year have led to new thinking and, for the exhibition, exciting innovation in the time of pandemic. As the Anacostia Community Museum remains closed, SITES and the museum present a new iteration of “Men of Change.” “Men of Change: Taking it to the Streets” is reinterpreted and designed to be outside. Placed in the environs around the Deanwood Recreation Center and Ron Brown High School, “Men of Change” in an opportunity to experience the Smithsonian in the neighborhood. And, it is a perfect idea for an exhibition whose primary point of view is to open the landscape. See the community of voices who are American ideals. Now those ideals are in the community. In them we see a lesson for us all, no matter our gender, age, or ethnicity.
The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum exhibition “Men of Change: Taking it to the Streets” is on view through May 31, 2021, on the campus of the Deanwood Community Center and Ron Brown H.S. (4800 Meade Street NE). Visit anacostia.si.edu for more details and map. Now available is the just-released audio tour for Men of Change created by Ron Brown H.S. students and local residents wherever podcasts are available. The Washington Informer Newspaper is the media sponsor for this exhibition.