Students learn African ancestry on trip

Joey Pompignano

By Joey Pompignano

Twenty-two students from Traci Williams’ Black Images class sought the truth about their African ancestry on a bus trip to three museums in Michigan.

During the course of the semester the class has been discussing negative depictions of African Americans in media. Watching films like “Ethnic Notions,” “Black Hollywoodism” and “400 Years without a Comb,” Williams taught her class how an “inferior seed” was planted in the minds of black youth through generations of physical and mental slavery.

They traveled first to Detroit’s Charles H. Wright African-American museum Friday, followed by the Motown museum. The trip concluded in Big Rapids at Ferris State University on Saturday. At this last stop, the Jim Crow museum, racist memorabilia displayed the basis of curriculum for Williams’ lesson plans. Each museum’s tour guide served a purpose, showing the students hardships and successes of Africans throughout history, as well as the actions needed now for a better tomorrow.

For Cain, Undiandeye, Hicks and their 19 colleagues, the trip meant more than a required assignment. It was a journey for identity of self.

African-American museum

Mama Kuba, a no-nonsense tour guide for the Charles H. Wright African-American museum, demanded that the students educate themselves more than the limited teachings offered in school.

“In order to really see and become a complete person,” Kuba said, “you have to know a little bit about yourself and your ancestors.”

A few of the trailblazers Kuba spoke of included Carter G. Woodson, Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois. Their engraved names wrapped around the concourse floor, bordering a spiritual painting of the Trans Atlantic Trade. Kuba asked the students to walk this “Ring of Geneology” and call out the names of those whom they identified and related.

Shavis Cain, a senior English major, said the students “transformed” into a “surreal dimension” when Kuba asked the group to call out these names.

“She was preparing us to go down and see what we were going to see and she put us in that mind frame of ‘open up your mind and your heart.”’

The enslaved African was stripped of not only his homeland, but his heritage, language, customs, and consciousness of self. In the “And Still We Rise” exhibit Kuba ordered the group to corner themselves against a wall of a mock slave fort. She told them to imagine being held there for 30, 60 or 90 days, urinating and defecating on one another. The eerie chill of cold air and the recording of kidnapped peoples screaming added an all-too-real effect for Cain.

“Walking through (The Belly of the Beast) I was kind of nervous,” she said. “I felt like it was something I needed to do. It’s always going to stick with me to know that people had to go through that.”

A teary-eyed Kuba led the group downstairs to a room built to look like the bottom of a slave ship, where life-size mannequin bodies lined up on wooden shelves and flesh-eating rats served as background noise over speakers.

“I don’t think I would’ve been able to survive,” Cain said.

Exiting the ship into a 1700s version of a New England town showed how slaves were auctioned off and sold. As Cain continued walking through her “surreal dimension” she viewed talking mechanical figures of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. The last part of the tour showcased the achievements of African Americans and the obstacles they faced. Rooms designed as black-owned bars, barbershops, movie theaters and churches exemplified how the African-American community made their mark in a land they were forced to reside.

Cain said seeing these accomplishments encouraged her, and reassured her to not compromise or be content settling for mediocrity.

“It gave me hope,” she said. “If they can overcome actually being taken from their homes and they can make it and evolve into black entrepreneurs and inventors, we can still overcome now.”

Motown museum

Swoop-n-Slide dance moves and Smokey Robinson songs brought a different vibe to the group’s next stop. The upbeat atmosphere on Berry Gordy Jr. Blvd. contrasted from the sullen Mama Kuba setting.

Students watched a 10-minute documentary about the origins of Motown Records, sometimes drowning out commentary as they sang along to their favorite hits.

Linus Undiandeye, a junior accounting major, said it amazed him how much talent birthed in a small area of Detroit.

“All of them signed in the beginning lived around each other,” Undiandeye said.

He said he did not realize Aretha Franklin, The Temptations and The Four Tops all grew up in the same neighborhood.

Adrian Polk, the energetic and enthusiastic tour guide volunteered visitors to sing their best renditions of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” as well as other classics under the echo chamber. The echo chamber, a hole cut in the ceiling, amplified the voices of artists such as Diana Ross and the Supremes when they recorded songs.

Polk took the group to Studio A where all the Motown artists recorded in Berry Gordy’s home.

Undiandeye, though impressed with exhibits like The Jackson Five display and Stevie Wonder’s drum set, took interest to the business mindset of the man behind Motown. At the time, black record labels could only play three songs a day on the radio. Gordy found a loophole in the system and bought the rights to 14 labels. He also provided a platform for speakers and poets.

“They even signed Martin Luther King to a speech deal,” Undiandeye said. “Without going to that museum I would’ve never known Martin Luther King was signed to Motown.”

Polk showed a copy of Gordy’s $800 promissory note. She said 10 years ago he sold the company for $500 million.

Undiandeye, who also has a passion for producing music, said Gordy’s ability to create the premier black record label from such humble beginnings inspired him.

“It gives you hope that you can do it because you see where they started,” he said.

Jim Crow museum

A mass collection of mammies, coons, sambos and pickaninny figures filled the glass cases in the 20 by 30 feet room of the Jim Crow museum of racism.

Dr. David Pilgrim, the founder of the museum collects racist memorabilia for educational purposes. He shows students that racial stereotypes formulated during the days of minstrel shows continue today in film, television and music.

“When a society believes the images they see, they reflect it in the things they make,” Pilgrim said. “If you didn’t tell me anything about a culture but you let me see the things they make, I can tell you a lot about their attitudes, tastes and values…if not the culture at large.”

Pilgrim had everything from klan costumes and Halloween masks to black dolls called golliwogs and “No Coloreds Allowed” signs. His new display case, dedicated to racist memorabilia of President Obama, showed how the racial hatred persists even in 2010.

He described the items as propaganda into making a group of people think they are inferior or subhuman to other groups. Whites used happy laughing “sambo” images in minstrel shows during slavery. The “brute” character from the film “Birth of a Nation,” became the convenient image when slavery was abolished to justify violence toward blacks. Referencing gangster films and rap music, Pilgrim said, “We continue to participate in our own destruction and are unaware of it.”

Chris Hicks, a sophomore electronic media production major, said he was “slightly overwhelmed” by the images in the museum. He said the jungle images of savages overshadowed Africans as kings and queens.

“We’ve been desensitized,” Hicks said. “We don’t even notice it anymore. It’s to the point now that these images are the norm, so we don’t look at them as a problem. The brothers and sisters are looking around thinking this is what I am because this is what I’m told that I am.”

Hicks said he hopes he and his classmates can work together as a whole to change the negative ways of thinking perpetuated by the media.

“Getting all this knowledge and not doing anything with it is kind of useless,” Hicks said. “I really want to take what I’ve learned and find a sturdy solution.”

Pilgrim had background information about each and every object in the room. He said racist products will continue being sold until a large majority of people in society stop buying them.

Toward the end of his presentation Pilgrim responded to a question from one of the students, who happened to be wearing a Cleveland Indians baseball cap with chief Wahoo on the front.

“How about you leave that hat here on your way out,” Pilgrim asked. “I can use it for this museum.”