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Commentary from RFLM Executive Director Terri L. Freeman – Truth Tellers and Culture Keepers: Champions for Justice
November 23, 2021 @ 8:00 am - December 23, 2021 @ 5:00 pm
Truth Tellers and Culture Keepers: Champions for Justice
On Friday, November 19, 2021, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of killing two, and shooting another protester in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Rittenhouse verdict has been delivered mere weeks before the verdict in the Ahmaud Arbery case which many of us are also awaiting. At times like these I’m reminded of James Baldwin’s observation that, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time – and in one’s work.” But how does that translate when our work is grounded in the history, art, and culture of people of African descent? What is the work of history and cultural keepers at a moment like this?
Museums serve as a record of the past, we are truth tellers and narrators of a cultural story that, not captured, simply disappears from our collective memory. Our role serves as a form of justice. Accurately interpreting, preserving, and educating about history and culture is a form of justice, one that takes fortitude and focus because our work is foundational to the principles that help strengthen many folks who are committed to racial equity, and especially for people of African descent in this country. As we witness and hear the influx of commentary – much of it inaccurately portraying the history of race in this country, or invoking critical race theory (often improperly), or negotiating yet again the realities of Black life in this country – I hope we each find windows to healthily process and reflect.
Alice Walker tells us “there is wealth in anger,” so if we are deeply wounded and angry about history’s cruel repetitions, we might be guided by Baldwin and Walker to put that anger into the passion for our work, into sharpening our clarity around why and how our work as history and culture keepers matters, and in renewing and fortifying our commitment that Black history, Black culture, Black expression, Black art, Black joy, Black safety, Black life, and Black people matter; every single day. That,ultimately, racial equity matters for all people. Our work matters because at moments like this, when we see white supremacy at work yet again in the judicial system – and when we are on tinder hooks awaiting a verdict in a case in which a literal law borne out of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act is being used to justify the killing of a Black man jogging – our work serves to remind people of the roads we have traveled before and have survived. But not only does our work remind people of African descent of the constant work that we have done to make this country “a more perfect union,” but our history and culture serves as a model to all people in the country. Our work pushes back against the “great temptation to simplify the issues.” We help people understand how this complex nuanced thing called race in America is not and has never been simple. We provide nuance. We provide models. We provide context. We provide history that offers roadmaps as we find ourselves in the midst of a third wave of the Civil Rights Movement (a movement that never truly ended).
This is why the work of Reginald F. Lewis Museum provide is so important. This is why we work with the Baltimore Police Department;’s cadet corp to increase understanding that is based not simply on feelings, but on facts. This is why we seek to train teachers on how they teach difficult history, to provide them with the support and resources to transfer knowledge to the next generation. This is why we host dialogues, debates and present thought leaders to introduce topics that often go unmentioned, or worse are discussed inaccurately like critical race theory. This is why the musuem’s historical memory is necessary to be both preserved and expanded.
Poet and scholar Audre Lorde was quick to remind us that “care of the self was not self-indulgence,” but rather an act of self-preservation. In the face of messages without care and seeming disregard for racial equity and Black life, may we who think and work as history and cultural keepers do what we need to care for ourselves and our diverse galaxies (family, friends, communities) as an act of self-preservation.