For many people, it is an enormous undertaking to consider African-American history in its totality. It's brutal, scary, infuriating, and one that should never, ever be forgotten. And as adults, we have the additional task of sharing this complex history with our youth.
For a long time, I couldn't quite figure out how to best explain our past while simultaneously embedding a sense of strength and promise, not just resiliency. The frustrating reality is that, without some sort of actualization, there is nothing to take from such an overwhelming history except anger.
But I realized recently that we often tell our story without purpose. I refuse to believe that our ancestors made it without knowing — truly knowing — that we weren't living our intended destiny. Our story is not that we overcame intense and indescribable hardship; it's that through it all, we maintained the knowledge that we weren't purposed for that. Our core is not our struggle; it is our strength. Our trials are just a piece of our story.
Fortunately, there's a hidden jewel in Charlotte that strives to convey our history in its entirety, not in short glimpses.
Located on Tuckaseegee Road, LATIBAH (Life and Times in Black American History) Collard Green Museum is quite unassuming from the outside. T'Afo Feimster (founder/artist/African-American history aficionado) and Naomi Winfrey (program director/historian) offered me an in-depth look into the museum's history and mission.
LATIBAH has its roots in a collection of Feimster's art in a local Charlotte studio. Ranging from paintings to sculptures, each piece captured moments of the African-American experience in a riveting fashion. Impressed visitors urged Feimster to establish a museum and, in 2009, he made the transition from artist to nonprofit executive director — a move which he describes as trying, but rewarding.
LATIBAH launched in NoDa, but relocated to the Historic West End in 2014 after some flooding. Though its exhibits do not have a specific demographic, the museum's most frequent visitors tend to include seniors and youth groups.
"When we do our marketing and PR, we're going after the school-aged kids and there's a reason why. It's part of — not only our mission to educate the public — but to focus on youth," Feimster said. "I believe that 15 percent of your self-esteem is based on you understanding who you are, knowing your history and culture and taking pride in that."
Winfrey echoed this sentiment during our tour. She recalled a conversation she had with a group of visiting students. She asked them to say the first word that came to mind when hearing, "Africa."
"I went down the line, and every single person said, 'Slave,'" she said.
That is precisely why the LATIBAH exhibit begins with Africa. Their intention is to explore the richness of our heritage prior to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. During each tour, Winfrey leads a group down a long hall, its walls lined with images of African leaders, and she recounts the continent's history — sharing stories of the various tribes and their explorations. Also on display are examples of artifacts and artwork, many of which are replicas created by Feimster himself.
The "trip" through African history is detailed and by no means rushed. But it ends once you reach the closed door, a literal and metaphorical entry that leads to the slave trade. I felt myself catch my breath as I listened to Winfrey's narration. It's harrowing, but each multi-dimensional piece is meticulously engraved with the haunting experience of the slave trade.
The winding exhibit continues on, traveling through each era of the African-American experience, including: Share Cropping, the Harlem Renaissance and Segregation. There is even a section dedicated to the story of Black Wall Street. Winfrey concludes the tour with the museum's only outdoor exhibit: The Underground Railroad, an overwhelming visual depiction of the journey to freedom. It is the perfect end to an inspiring tour.
The museum also offers a number of programs and monthly community events, such as lectures/discussions and live reenactments of moments in black history.
"You have to deliberately focus on the issues and create programs that will address them. I don't think we can just get away with saying History-Museum-Slavery," says Feimster. "The key is education."
Alexzenia Davis is a poet, freelance writer and media manager based out of Charlotte.