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National Museum of African American History and Culture: ‘The Story of America Through an African-American Lens’

July 25, 2017

NMAAHC_gettyOn a very cold, very sunny March day, I make my way down the National Mall in Washington, D.C., walking from Union Station to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the newest addition to the Smithsonian Institution complex. I am going to talk with Rhea L. Combs, NMAAHC’s curator of photography and film, about its media arts program. In 2009, I attended and wrote about an early exhibition organized by the museum, "The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise." The photography show was held at the museum's then-temporary base in the National Museum of American History. NMAAHC moved into its own building on the Mall in September 2016.

As I approach the museum from the south, I am treated to a dazzling view of the museum's facade. I've seen photographs of the building with its three tiers of filigreed metal wrapping all four sides of the glass-walled structure, forming what its architect calls an "outer corona," and the bright sunshine reflecting off the building's surface this morning truly suggests something fiery.

Inside, school groups and other visitors pack the lobby and are lined up on the subterranean floor waiting for their tours to begin. NMAAHC welcomed its millionth visitor in February and is expecting six million by the end of year.

The museum has been the subject of many articles, from its award-winning design (see Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times) to its often challenging and emotionally moving exhibits (Vann R. Newkirk II in The Atlantic). The museum's mission was summed up by founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III in an interview on the PBS Newshour with Gwen Ifill a few days before it opened to the public: "This is the story of America through an African American lens." Appropriate, then, that in this post and the one that follows, I will focus on the museum's photography and film program and the donors who made it possible.

Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA)

Before catching up with Combs, I have time to walk through the second-floor gallery of the Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts (CAAMA), which she directs.

As stated on the museum's website, CAAMA was created to "explore the formation of African American history and culture through media arts, including photography, film, video, and audio recordings." The center's holdings and offerings encompass photographs, film, and video; in-house publications; public programs; a resource center; and a digital archive. Some of these components are already in place, while others are in development or being refined.

CAAMA's showcase is an 800-square-foot gallery that will feature changing exhibitions on a regular basis. The inaugural exhibition, Everyday Beauty, a collection of one hundred photographs organized around family and community themes, is on view until February 2018. The images include snapshots and professional photographs ranging from intimate family gatherings, to studio portraits, to iconic civil rights images. Visitors also can view "home movie" footage: scenes of the African American community in Oklahoma in the 1920s taken by a local minister and businessman, the Rev. S.S. Jones. In the center of the gallery, an interactive touch-screen table invites visitors to learn more about the photos, artists, and family collections on display and to view clips of rarely seen documentary films and home movies related to the exhibit.

After visiting the gallery, I sit down with Combs, who has degrees in African-American studies, American studies, and film history, and whose work experience includes a stint as outreach director at the National Black Programming Consortium, which supports media content focused on the black experience. I ask her what attracted her to her new position.

"I've always had a strong interest in the way curatorial work and exhibitions can resonate with a diverse audience," she replies. "I wanted to figure out a way to promote the work of African-American image-makers who were doing very important work, either from an innovative, artistic standpoint or a social justice standpoint, but weren't getting visibility."

Combs joined the museum in 2013; she's helped curate the photos and films in the collection and has contributed to the institution's approach to media.

"This position really married all of my interests, from African-American history and culture to female filmmakers, to public scholarship," she tells me. "The national scale of the museum provides a rich opportunity to share the work of known and lesser-known filmmakers and image-makers with the world. It's such a tremendous gift for me, really a 'pinch-me' experience!"

Home Movies

Combs walks me through how the different programs within CAAMA interact and how CAAMA coordinates with other centers and exhibits within the museum. I am intrigued by the inclusion of home movies, or more accurately "amateur movies," in the Everyday Beauty exhibit and ask her to tell me more about the museum's interest in the genre.

"We've acquired a few hundred films known as home movies. We have quite a variety," she says. "And we're still collecting them."

The home movies of Rev. Jones featured in the current CAAMA exhibition are a rare document of life during the 1920s and were shot mostly in the many all-black towns that existed in Oklahoma at the time. Solomon Sir Jones was a minister, the son of former slaves, a successful business owner, and an amateur filmmaker. (His movies were recently added to the National Film Registry.) There are nine reels of film in the museum's collection, each ten to twelve minutes long. The Beinecke Library at Yale University owns twenty-nine other films shot by Jones.

The significance of Jones' silent, black-and-white movies is their depiction of undaunted African-American families in Oklahoma just a few years after the thriving black businesses in Tulsa and the surrounding residential area was nearly destroyed by angry white mobs; the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot left nearly three hundred people dead. "Rev. Jones' work offers revealing glimpses of these communities as a haven from discrimination and violence for African Americans," Combs tells me.

Jones' films were donated to the museum in 2011 by Naomi Long Madgett, an African-American poet, editor, and former teacher. Now in her 90s, Madgett spoke with me from her home near Detroit and told me how she came to possess the films.

"Rev. Jones founded a church in Guthrie, Oklahoma, which my father attended as a boy," she says. "My family moved to New Jersey, but when I was three years old Rev. Jones visited us during one of his trips [out East] to attend a Baptist convention."

Jones filmed Madgett's family while he was staying with them, and when he died in 1936 his widow sent nine rolls of film to Madgett's father, including the scenes he had filmed in New Jersey; the film was later passed on to Madgett.

"He filmed my two brothers and my parents in our yard on a Sunday afternoon," she recalls. "It had rained, and my mother didn't want me to get my shoes wet, so I stood on the porch and waved bye-bye to the camera. I remember it vividly!"

(That scene is now in the museum's sampling of the Jones collection: "Preview Clip: Reverend S. S. Jones, Home Movies [1924-1928].)


Madgett followed the news about the creation of the NMAAHC and decided in 2011 to donate the films along with letters from Rev. Jones, photos, and related material. "You can't throw away history!" she says. "I knew the museum was the best place for the films, where people would see them. I'm the last of my generation, and I wanted to make sure these things would not be lost."

In my conversation with Combs, she tells me that in addition to the Rev. Jones films, "we have similar material produced by J. Max Bond, Sr., who was an educator and diplomat during the 1930s through the mid-'60s, with an international career and also posts in the American South. His granddaughter donated ten reels of 16mm film to us. They include footage from Tennessee, where he captured scenes of rural African-American life."

(A family connection to the gift is emblematic of the often-cited community spirit that created and sustains NMAAHC: Bond's son, the architect J. Max Bond, Jr., was involved in the museum's design.)

"Other home movies includes scenes of Cab Calloway performing and traveling with his family in Haiti in the 1950s," Combs says. "And we have incredible movies of Alice Coltrane at home with her children, playing the harp." (Some of those films can be seen here.)

Jasmyn Castro, a media archivist at the museum, is a specialist in African-American home movies. I join her in the Digitization Media Center, near the CAAMA gallery, which is filled with state-of-the-art digital equipment. She gives me some background on the genre and why it's a key feature of the museum's collection.

"Home movies provide a first-hand perspective on African-American life that's missing from the more political films like documentaries about the march to Selma," she says. "Since these films were made for family and friends, home movies show people just hanging out; they're self-expressions of who we are."

Starting in the 1930s, the idea of  "amateur film" began to include family-made recordings, but the cost of cameras, film, and film processing limited its popularity. After WWII, the technology changed, and the equipment became easier and cheaper to use. The industry soon recognized the potential of the home-movie market, and ad campaigns began to include members of the growing African-American middle class.

Castro tells me that the how-to manuals in the box in which the equipment was sold recommended shooting certain kinds of activities. Those suggestions, along with individual amateur filmmaker's own thoughts about what was, and wasn't, appropriate to record for posterity eventually resulted in an aesthetic that crossed the boundaries of American geography and ethnicity: recordings of babies, road trips, reunions, and so on.

"Home movies made by African Americans are no different in terms of 'scenes' than home movies made by other groups," says Castro. "They all reflect American culture. The difference is that home movies also record the history of African Americans in a way that's missing from other accounts." While mainstream media misrepresented or ignored African-American culture, she tells me, "black history was quietly being preserved in the numerous home movies shot by African-American families across the United States."

While a graduate student at NYU's Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program, Castro established a registry of African-American home movies. In a paper describing that project, she states that "Through home movie recording, underrepresented and marginalized ethnic groups were presented with the opportunity to tell their story."

Digitization and The Family History Center

CAAMA's Digitization Media Center was built with a gift from Robert Frederick Smith, who has donated $20 million to create the Robert Frederick Smith Fund for the Digitization and Curation of African American History in support of digitization, community outreach, and curatorial initiatives. Smith earmarked $13 million of the donation for The Great Migration, an initiative to digitize home movies and other documentary media now under way at the museum. Those movies and other resources will be available to museum visitors and online through the Robert F. Smith Explore Your Family History Center, an interactive digital project that can also be viewed in a quiet room with a bank of desks equipped with touch-screen access. The room is separated from the Digitization Media Center by a glass wall that reveals the impressive array of media equipment. The side-by-side centers also share a view of the Washington Monument.

Walter Forsberg, another graduate of the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program, heads up the Digitization Media Center and directs me to the Rev. Jones films, which the center has uploaded to the Internet. Forsberg and four other specialists comprise the media digitization team, which works to catalog, digitize, and/or reformat film, video, and audio recordings for the museum's permanent collection. The group is part of the Smithsonian-wide Time-Based Media and Digital Art Working Group, an interdisciplinary group of media specialists, curators, and exhibit designers.

Smith, whose gift is one of the three largest to the museum to date, is the founder of an investment firm focused on software companies. In 2014, he established the Fund II Foundation, which supports a range of projects in the areas of human rights, arts and culture, the environment, entrepreneurialism, and preserving the African-American experience. In a Washington Post article last fall announcing his gift to the museum, Smith spoke about his passion for preserving photos and other family treasures.

Combs tells me that "Mr. Smith has been quite generous in terms of our digitization project, helping us create what we are calling our Community Curation Program, which will launch this year. The idea gels with our overall digitization plans," she adds. “We will create an app or some sort of mechanism whereby people from all walks of life can submit their audio and visual material to be digitized, made available for people to view, and archived to a central repository. It's sort of a StoryCorps notion, but for media, film, and photography."

In addition to the home movie, amateur films, and upcoming CCP material, other film and video material in CAAMA comes from professionals in the field. "We have the Pearl Bowser collection, which is really, really thrilling," says Combs. "The collection is a compendium of several hundred items, including films she acquired and oral interviews she conducted."

When I later contact him, Louis Massiah, a filmmaker who has documented the work of Bowser, tells me that her role as a film programmer made her a leader in the film world and led to her amassing a collection of films. "By the early '70s, commissioned by the New York Department of Cultural Affairs, Pearl was programming films by black filmmakers at many New York City venues – including libraries and community centers in Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens. It was an exciting time in terms of independent work by African and African diaspora filmmakers, but it was an era before black films were readily accessible. She had to purchase prints of the 16mm and 35mm films she wanted to show, and that's how she began collecting them. To promote the screenings, she also collected marketing materials, including posters and production stills."

Micheaux_BowserBowser continues to be well known as a writer, especially for her book about the African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, as well as for her film preservation work, her international festival programming, and her leadership of African Diaspora Images and Third World Newsreel,
among other organizations.

"She got the work out into neighborhoods," Massiah tells me, "because she understood the community aspect of these films; that it was important to show them in community settings with an African-American audience. And in the process, she was stimulating more work by encouraging filmmakers with the opportunity to have their works seen."

One short film in the Bowser collection is Integration Report 1, a 1960 film about police brutality by Madeline Anderson, one of the few women filmmakers who documented the civil rights era.

Jon S. Goff, CAAMA's museum specialist in film, is excited about spotlighting unknown and under-appreciated media figures such as Anderson, the first African-American woman to produce and direct a televised documentary. "We were pleased to be able to interview her for the museum's oral history project," he tells me. "She had worked with well-known filmmakers such as Richard Leacock, David and Albert Maysles, and D.A. Pennebaker, but she wasn't adequately recognized. Fortunately, her films are being shown more widely now, and she's an active participant in the screenings."

Speaking with me during a break from recording another oral history, Goff says that, "'Moving image' is probably a more accurate description than 'film' for what we do, because our work includes animation, digital media artists, films, home movies, and audio interviews. And we engage with practitioners: the artists who are defining and redefining black visual culture. We're especially looking for women and experimental artists to feature. There's a precious history to mine."

Goff, a filmmaker with degrees in sociology and fine arts, currently is working on After Sherman, a documentary film about race relations centered on the history of his family's land in South Carolina's Gullah region and the 2015 mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. He joined the museum's staff recently.

I ask him how CAAMA's program is different from other media shown in the museum. "There's a lot of blurred lines in the entire museum," he says. "For instance, the exhibit space 'Taking the Stage' also features film, but it's more historical and is one of the permanent exhibits that stay in place for a decade or so. The museum commissioned Ava DuVernay, who directed 13th and Selma, to create a film that introduces visitors to the museum's themes; August 28th is shown in a small room near the museum's entrance. But CAAMA is meant to be ever-changing, with a more contemporary and critical approach to black representation. Part of our program is curation, and we want to digitize the films in our collection and make them accessible through the CAAMA page.”

Earl W. and Amanda Stafford, the donors who helped create CAAMA, are particularly interested in the idea.

"Mr. Stafford's background is in technology, so he's very keen on materials in the museum being made available via the website," says Combs.

Earl Stafford founded UNITECH, an IT company, in 1988, after a career in the Air Force. In 2002, he set up the Stafford Foundation, a faith-based nonprofit that raises money for charitable causes. With support from the foundation, he also brought low-income people to Washington in 2009 for the "People's Inaugural Project.” Before it opened, the Staffords made a personal donation to NMAAHC at the $2 million-plus level that included support for CAAMA. In an interview with the Washington Business Journal last year, Stafford said, "My avocation is photography, and in talking with [the museum] about what they were going to do, it immediately resonated with me. We wanted to be a part of the story."


Over the past two years, CAAMA has drawn on the museum's collection of more than twenty-five thousand photographs for a five-volume photography series called Double Exposure. The first book in the series, Through the African American Lens, "highlights the breadth of material in the collection" and, in the words of NMAAHC director Bunch, shows "the diversity of the African American experience."

(Subsequent volumes in the Double Exposure series include Civil Rights and the Promise of Equality; African American Women; Picturing Children; and Fighting for Freedom.)

In her introduction to the book, Combs notes that "While photographs are not absolute truth, and often suggest more questions than answers, they have a power to provoke, push, or propel one to think about a historical moment, reexamine the known world, or demonstrate the possibilities of one’s future."

The sixty or so beautiful and affecting images in the volume date as far back as the 1850s, though the majority are from the twentieth century, with a handful of more contemporary pictures: scenes and portraits of the famous and anonymous in private moments and at public events.

Deborah Willis, an artist, curator, educator, and member of the museum's advisory committee, contributed an essay to the book. In it, she connects the photos presented in the book with "the Museum's aims to collect, promote, produce, and privilege material that emphasizes the ways in which Americans of African descent act as agents in constructing their own images." In the photographs, she adds, "We see America's history."

(The images in Through the African American Lens are part of a show, "More Than a Picture: Selections From the Photography Collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture," recently opened in a new Special Exhibitions Gallery featuring more than a hundred and fifty photographs and related materials. The exhibition of photographs from the collection is also one of CAAMA's priorities, part of its commitment to public programs.)

Film-Screening Program

A $13 million gift to the museum's capital campaign from the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation was a major boost to the overall construction budget and enabled the museum to build a 350-seat state-of-the-art theater named for the entertainer. And Winfrey has continued to support the museum, with contributions to date (through her foundation and personally) totaling $21 million, making her NMAACH's top donor.

CAAMA kicked off its public program film series (in the Oprah Winfrey Theater) at an auspicious moment for African-American cinema: earlier in the year, six African-American actors (Mahershala Ali, Viola Davis, Naomi Harris, Ruth Negga, Octavia Spencer, and Denzell Washington); writer-director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight); documentary feature directors Ava DuVernay (13th), Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro), Ezra Edelman (O.J. Made in America), and Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated); cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival); film editor Joi McMillon (Moonlight); and producer Kimberly Steward (Manchester by the Sea) had all been nominated for Academy Awards.

Soon after opening in September, the museum organized one-time, semi-public/semi-private screenings of Loving (which garnered a best supporting actor nomination for Negga), Moonlight (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Ali, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Jenkins and McCraney), Hidden Figures (supporting actor nomination for Spencer), and Fences (best actor nominations for Davis and Washington). There was also a private screening of 13th, organized by Netflix, the movie's distributor.

"The excitement and fervor over the museum finally opening has been overwhelming," Combs tells me during our conversation. "We are thrilled that we were able to screen all these films but were really not able to open up as many public seats as we hoped. In those initial programs, with all the press and publicity, we had to reserve a significant number of tickets for donors and major supporters. The public tickets were consequently limited and literally sold out as soon as we announced the shows."

I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, ushered in Black History Month at the museum, and the demand for tickets was so great that an additional, simultaneous screening was organized at Ballou High School in Anacostia, the predominantly African-American neighborhood in southeast Washington, where Peck introduced the film before rushing back to the museum to participate in a panel discussion moderated by NPR's Michele Norris and featuring (in addition to Peck) Deborah Tulani Salahu-Din, exhibition specialist at the museum, and Heather C. McGhee, the president of liberal think tank Demos.

In the course of the discussion, Peck explained how his early interest in the works of James Baldwin led him to devote ten years to the film. "Once you read the first Baldwin book, you usually read all of them, and I was privileged to have read Baldwin when I was seventeen," he told the audience. "Suddenly my life made sense, I knew who I was, and I knew what my place was in the world."

Peck then elaborated on the current state of race relations in the U.S. and his views on equality and justice. Like Baldwin, who returned to the U.S. from his self-imposed exile in Europe in the early 1960s to participate in the protest marches then being led by Martin Luther King, Peck said that none of us can sit back and wait for young activists to bring about change. Echoing Baldwin in the film, he added: "I have a responsibility."

In our conversation, Combs points out that all post-screening discussions in CAAMA's screening series will include museum staff, in order to "provide historical context and connection between artifacts that the audience can see in the galleries and how they might apply to the story that's being told in the film."

An exchange between Norris and Salahu-Din, the exhibition specialist, underscored that connection. Norris asked how the items on display in the museum, like the film, "help us understand Baldwin."

"As a curatorial team," Salahu-Din replied, "we create the intellectual framework for the exhibit, then we identify the objects that support that story. Human identity, creativity, and freedom are the broad themes that really frame the life and work of Baldwin. That's what the visitor will walk away with from the multimedia display of film clips, publications, and items that connect Baldwin to civil rights activism."


(Credit: Sedat Pakay © 1966. Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.)

The screening of I Am Not Your Negro illustrates how the media arts center weaves together different resources and activities. Some of the artifacts featured in the film, such as Baldwin's passport, are now part of the museum's collection. (The passport is currently on display in the "Making a Way Out of No Way" gallery.) A striking photograph (above) from the film of Baldwin working at his typewriter is also in the collection, part of a group of ten portraits the museum acquired from photographer Sedat Pakay. Baldwin visited Turkey frequently between 1961 and 1970 (as described in this Washington Post article), and Pakay, a young Turkish artist at the time, took hundreds of photographs of the writer, mostly in Istanbul, and later made a short film based on their sessions; Baldwin later sponsored Pakay's application to the Yale University School of Art.

BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez (2015), a documentary film about poet Sonia Sanchez by Barbara Attie, Janet Goldwater, and Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, screened in March as part of a celebration of black women artists, activists, and business leaders. The discussion included Combs, Sanchez, and the filmmakers. (Sanchez' book of poetry, We A BaddDDD People (1970) is featured in the museum's exhibit A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond, which is catalogued online.)

"One of the Pearl Bowser films in our collection is an interview she made with Sonia Sanchez,” says Goff in our conversation about CAAMA's film program. "We showed it prior to screening BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez. The interview explores how Sanchez uses 'I' in a global sense, referring to the Pan-African community; it encapsulates the spirit of this museum, similar to the Langston Hughes quote on the wall inside the museum entrance: "I, too, am America."

Continuing its celebration of women filmmakers, the museum presented two programs, in collaboration with the Environmental Film Festival, highlighting the women who were part of the "L.A. Rebellion," an influential group of black filmmakers based mostly at UCLA in the late 1960s.

The first program featured Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991), a film set in the early twentieth century that depicts the Gullah culture on the South Carolina sea islands and a family's decision to leave that isolated community for the mainland; the film was added to the National Film Registry in 2004. "Cinema + Conversation: Reimagining African Spiritualities in Daughters of the Dust," included a screening of the film and a discussion with Dash, Judith Weisenfeld, a scholar of African spirituality, and Ron Daise, a Gullah Island singer and preservationist.

"The museum has a center for the study of African-American religious life," Combs tells me during our conversation, "and so the Daughters of the Dust post-screening conversation was about how religion is expressed in the film and how that’s related to our exhibitions, particularly the 'Slavery and Freedom' exhibit."

The second program featured short films by Dash, Shirikiana Aina, Zeinabu Davis, O. Funmilayo Makarah, and Alile Sharon Larkin, all of whom were part of the movement. "Cinema + Conversation: Women of the L.A. Rebellion" brought all five together for a post-screening talk.

(The post-screening discussion was complemented by a social media campaign: on Twitter at #HiddenHerstory, where brief profiles of the directors sparked readers' comments, and on Facebook/Instagram. Indeed, social media is an important tool for CAAMA, which uses it help promote screenings and discussions, and to share content afterward. The museum's Tumbler, for instance, has a fascinating post about James Baldwin's views on identity, creativity and freedom, as well as a video interview with Salahu-Din conducted by Meghan Ferriter, project coordinator at the Smithsonian Institution Transcription Center, and the discussion that followed the screening of Peck's I Am Not Your Negro was live-streamed and is archived on the NMAAHC UStream channel. Upcoming screenings and other events, as well as information from past screenings, can be viewed on NMAAHC's calendar page.)

The media programs I discovered in these conversations, gallery visits, and Internet explorations are integral to the museum's mission: to educate, to celebrate, and to stimulate a conversation about our shared history and the particular role of the African-American community in creating American society. Film, photographs, home movies, and other images have the power to move the viewer in a unique way; the museum is fortunate to have the support of foundations and individuals who understand and support that – with everything from large grants to donation of personal artifacts.

I began this article with the intention to simply report on an exciting new documentary film program and related activities, NMAAHC being the latest national platform for the genre. But I found much more: a complex weaving-together of film and other programs, and a museum that provides a uniquely twenty-first century experience. My next post will provide details on what that means for audiences, donors, and potential community partners.

Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. Check out her other posts for PhilanTopic here.

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Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   August 05, 2017 at 11:16 AM

For those who live outside of the Washington, DC area and have not had a chance to visit MNAAHC, Kaye Pyle's article is a rare treat. She provided PhilanTopic readers a rich insider's vicarious trip to the museum. It is also fascinating to learn about MNAAHC's cutting-edge technologies and programming. I am now even more eager to travel to DC to see the museum's exhibits.

Michael Seltzer

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