“The Birth of a Nation,” a loose retelling of the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner in Virginia, is making headlines. But not solely because Turner’s courage is finally being told on movie screens.
Nate Parker, the co-writer and director, has had to answer questions about rape charges from 1999 on what would otherwise be a triumphant press tour for the critically acclaimed film. The accuser committed suicide in 2012.
In July, a movie poster featuring Parker, who stars as Turner, in a noose was released. The brutal image, an accurate depiction of Turner’s fate, demanded to be confronted.
Turner was an enslaved man whose rebellion was joined by slaves and free Blacks. It led to the deaths of more than 50 white people. After the uprising was quelled, more than 200 Blacks were killed by whites seeking revenge. Once Turner was caught, he was quickly convicted and hanged.
Turner fought against laws that shackled free Blacks and slaves alike. His fight was for education, the right to assemble, the right to vote—basically every right afforded by the Constitution, but withheld from Blacks.
Like so many Black leaders before and after slavery was abolished, Turner fought for the proper and legal recognition of his people.
When the National Museum of African-American History and Culture opens later this month in Washington, D.C., the cultural museum dedicated to Black history will exhibit Turner’s family Bible. Like the film “The Birth of a Nation,” which will be released Oct. 7, exhibiting the Bible acknowledges Turner’s importance to Black history, as well as one of the most harrowing examples of the oppressiveness of slavery.
The film shares its title with a 1915 movie that portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as post-Civil War white heroes. The script of American history, controlled by the elite and powerful, has always omitted facts, which is why the NMAAHC’s opening is so important.
From slavery to emancipation to the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter, the museum seeks to be a repository of Black history and the people who have sacrificed in the fight for inclusion and equality. NMAAHC is one of the 11 Smithsonian museums on the National Mall, a place of prominence that has rarely been set aside for Black culture and history.
In “Making a Home for Black History,” from the Aug. 29 edition of The New Yorker, Vinson Cunningham’s wrote, “ … for the new museum to become worthy of its expressive building, and to join the ranks of institutions that have helped us to better understand ourselves, it will need to borrow the tactics of art: a long and steady gaze, a bravery uncommon in bureaucracy, and a conception of experience not as a lens but as something that we must continue, indefinitely, to excavate—interpreting as we dig.”
In other words, to have a lasting impact, the museum must continue to uncover, display and teach the stories and artifacts—slave quarters, bills of sale, shackles—that some would rather leave in the past or simply ignore.
Like anything with Black history, we must honor and respect the trailblazers. It’s the same for museums. The following is a list of museums that have been focusing on curating and cultivating the history of the Black experience.
1. African-American Museum & Library at Oakland
The museum’s collection includes 12,000 volumes by or about African-Americans. Anyone looking to delve deeper into the history of the Black Panthers, an organization that was founded 50 years ago, should visit here. 659 14th St., Oakland, Calif. www.oaklandlibrary.org
2. The Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco
Four themes—origin, movement, adaptation and transformation—related to the African Diaspora inform this museum. A fascinating current exhibit is titled “Dandy Lion: (Re)Articulating Black Masculine Identity,” a show that highlights the Black dandies, as well as the imagery of Black men’s clothing in the world. 685 Mission St., San Francisco, Calif. www.moadsf.org
3. African-American Civil War Museum
The Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, was the bloodiest war in American history. The fight to abolish slavery claimed the lives of more than 600,000 soldiers. Some historians have cited death estimates between 750,000 and 900,000. This museum shares the stories of Black soldiers who fought for the freedom of their countrymen. Even after the Union claimed victory over the Confederacy, the laws of slavery remained intact during Reconstruction. 1925 Vermont Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. www.afroamcivilwar.org
4. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Douglass, who was born into slavery, secretly taught himself to read and write. He shared his knowledge with other slaves, and was punished for it. Douglass daringly escaped to freedom as a teen. He became an author and well-known abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights. His first autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” is a classic. Cedar Hill is the home Douglass purchased in 1877. It is now run by the National Park Service. 1411 W St. SE, Washington, D.C. www.nps.gov/frdo/index.htm
5. Hampton University Museum
Founded in 1868 on the campus of the historically Black university, it is the oldest African-American museum in the United States. The collection features more than 9,000 objects, including works by Jacob Lawrence, a painter who is known for his abstract and colorful depictions of Black life. 100 E. Queen St., Hampton, Va. http://museum.hamptonu.edu/
6. Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
You know Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1945. Robinson was the first player to make the jump from the Negro Leagues, but he might not have been the best Black player at the time. Soon after Robinson, all the best Black players were on Major League rosters. And Black fans followed them to stadium stands. Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Roy Campanella got their starts in the Negro League before becoming MLB Hall of Famers. The decline of the Negro Leagues was inevitable, but the history is preserved here. 1616 E. 18th St., Kansas City, Mo. www.nlbm.com
7. The Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists
The museum specializes in contemporary visual and performance art that represents Black heritage. It is known for its African, Afro-Latin, Afro-Caribbean and African-American collections. 300 Walnut Ave., Roxbury, Mass. ncaaa.org
8. National Civil Rights Museum
The National Civil Rights Museum stands at a pivotal landmark in the Civil Rights Movement. It is located at the former Lorraine Motel, where April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated as he stood on the balcony outside his hotel room. You can view the room where King was staying, as well as the building from where the fatal shot was allegedly fired. The museum captures the history and legacy of the movement that continues decades after King’s death. 450 Mulberry St., Memphis, Tenn. civilrightsmuseum.org
9. Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Before the first Black pilots became known as the Red Tails, they trained at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Ala. The Tuskegee Airmen weren’t just pilots; they were plane technicians, flight navigators, paramedics and more. And it wasn’t just men working, as women performed some of the same duties as their male counterparts. 1616 Chappie James Ave., Tuskegee, Ala. www.nps.gov/tuai/index.htm
10. Mississippi Civil Rights Museum
The museum, in Jackson, Miss., doesn’t open until 2017. Mississippi, with its long history of racial inequality, is the state where a young man named Emmett Till was lynched in 1955. Erecting a civil rights museum in a state where racist behavior can still be an expected and accepted part of everyday life is, at the very least, an acknowledgement that there is plenty of work that needs to be done before this society can be considered fair and equal.
It is also a reminder that museums focusing on Black history offer a learning experience for all people.
And yes, Black lives matter.
Otis R. Taylor Jr. is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist with a battle rap obsession. He is based in Oakland, Calif.