It’s all about the stories

Next to Hamilton, the toughest ticket to get in the U.S. right now is admittance to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Thanks to Dan, I had tickets for this Tuesday and headed down with a small group of friends. We each followed our own path through the museum, checking in periodically and meeting up for lunch. This proved to be a great plan to get the most out of the few hours we had.

Photo by Elisabeth K. Boas

The museum has two different paths a visitor can follow: the three-level underground history galleries accessed from a single room-sized elevator, which often has a lengthy wait; or the culture and community galleries which each occupies a floor above. My story-gathering began as soon as I entered the culture gallery and noticed the cast iron skillet and sea green coffee cups that were part of many kitchens. Next to me was a woman who was struck by the inclusion of the skillet as well. And so the conversation began. She mentioned that the cast iron skillet was the one thing she really wanted when a family home was disassembled. Her grandmother used it for fried chicken and cornbread. I shared that my mother’s brisket pot held similarly memories.

And then we kept talking. About growing up in communities where there were people of different religions and ethnicities and children absorbed aspects of these cultures because it was everywhere.  We spoke about our surprise when we  each entered communities that were less accepting and racial differences created real social barriers. And we talked about where we live in now and how difficult it is to comprehend how far backward we’ve gone as a country in understanding and accepting one another. Sharon lives in New Jersey and was spending two days at the African American museum. She came with a friend who didn’t want to see the Holocaust Museum. So we talked about her coming back to DC and going there together. Two women of a certain age, one African American, the other Jewish American. Both American. Thanks, Sharon. You made my day.

There were other conversations – with a Vietnam veteran from Baltimore; a woman whose family has owned a cottage in an African-American enclave on Martha’s Vineyard for close to a century; and a woman who wishes her son (who was with her) could understand the emotions and importance of Freedom Summer. Each conversation enriched the experience.

When we did enter the floors devoted to the history of African Americans in the US the experience was very different. The artifacts and explanatory signs are
intended to deepen the superficial knowledge that most people have, particularly about the slave trade and the early US economy, and the role of slaves and free blacks in the military from colonial times through the Civil War.

There is a sanctity about the early rooms. By carefully interspersing quotations and artifacts the very personal toll of the Middle Passage is brought to life. The number of slaves captured in Africa by each of the various colonial powers is listed but seeing the ship names, the dates of passage, and the number of slaves at the start and end of the voyage brings the horror of that information to a new level. How can feeling beings put people in shackles and imprison them and name the ship “Happy” or “Excellent”?

A large area, open through all three levels of the history exhibit focuses on the unresolved conflict of “liberty and justice for all” and people as property. The backdrop to a statue of Jefferson is large stacks of bricks, each engraved with the name of one of Jefferson’s slaves. Once again, it is the details of display that connect the visitor in ways that haven’t been done before.

I’m already planning my next visit to the museum. There is so much to see. But since I always look for a book connection wherever I go, here are two:

  • Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill, a novel about the Middle Passage and life for a bright, accomplished slave and later, free woman, in the 18th century. A bit about the book and the TV miniseries here.
  • The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s National Book Award-winning historical study of the Great Migration of African Americans from the agricultural south to the industrial north during much of the 20th century.

I’ve moved! Virtually, that is

The combination of unceasingly cold weather and the common cold have kept me close to my computer. With a bit of help, you are now seeing this blog and my website in their new home.  The look is much the same for now but the address is streamlined.  And if you find me from somewhere other than your phone, the subscribe option is readily visible.

The great news about virtual moves is that there are no packing boxes to unload or shelves to build so I am squeezing in some other activities. I’m a bit behind but I am watching the BET miniseries, The Book of Negroes, that I discussed a few weeks ago. The first 2 hours were what I imagined while reading the book, a very pleasant surprise.

My front-burner reading right now is a grand mix.  A discussion of  Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is rescheduled for next week. Lahiri grabbed me from the first sentence and sent me off in search of info on the Naxalite movement in India that is the catalyst for the story. I’m also tasting some upcoming titles on my iPad. Having the chance to find a great story before it has been promoted and dissected to death is such fun. Of course, many of these advance reads are also good candidates for the remainder section of the bookstore. I just abandoned an upcoming novel about George Sand by a writer I usually enjoy. Her writing of semi-fictional accounts of real people is less appealing to me than the characters she creates on her own. An upcoming debut novel by Rebecca Dinerstein landed on my iPad. It is due out in April and I hope to have a review to share. She’s created two parallel threads, each with a distinct narrator. So far it is worth the read and I’m looking forward to seeing where she takes it.

Before I leave this space, I’d like to share the promise of spring. Back in 2010 the DC area was gripped by Snowmaggedon. It took a while, but the season changed and the cherry blossoms bloomed. I spent a glorious day with a camera watching nature reborn and people from all corners of the earth walking the Tidal Basin in celebration of Washington and spring.

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Coming to a (small) screen near you! Part 1- The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

Huh? “What is The Book of Negroes?” you say. “I’m sure I’d have remembered a book with that title!” Therein lies the story. Lawrence Hill, a Canadian author, published The Book of Negroes in 2007. This historical novel quickly garnered critical acclaim and popular recognition, winning awards and being selected by the CBC-radio for its “Read Canada” event. The book tells the story of Aminata, a young girl stolen from Africa in the 1700’s and enslaved in South Carolina. She escapes and heads to Manhattan and aids the British during the American Revolution, serving as the scribe for the Book of Negroes, the registry of those freed slaves the British promise to award land for their assistance in fighting the colonists during the Revolution. Every day of her life she worked to better herself, a truly compelling character.

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The Book of Negroes is an actual historical document and becomes a pivotal part of the story. It is the connotation of the title that is so off-putting. We just don’t say that. So when the book was released in the US in 2008 the title was changed to Someone Knows My Name. The book has been brought to television with CBC (Canada) and BET (US) as the primary producers.  It has already premiered in Canada and will be shown on BET February 16 to 18. This is BET’s first  miniseries ever.  http://www.bet.com/shows/the-book-of-negroes.html 

Lawrence Hill has created a wonderful and well-written story in this, his first novel. This success has traversed borders, raising the controversial question, “What’s in a name?” When the book was published in the Netherlands in 2011 there were threats to burn the book over its title. Hill responded that the controversy is part of the message to be learned from the story.

I am excited at the prospect of watching the miniseries. My past experience with CBC productions has been quite positive. There’s still time to enter Aminata’s world on your own terms before you watch the show. My copy has traveled through many hands since I first read it and discussed it with a book group. Someone Knows My Name/The Book of Negroes is a good example of historical fiction that expands your understanding of history through the life story of its characters.