Never underestimate the power of talk, especially in a media-centric age.
For Tavis Smiley, the juice and goodwill that come with hosting national talk shows on public radio and television enabled him to turn a brainstorm into an ambitious, nationally touring reality.
"America I Am: The African American Imprint," the historical and cultural exhibition he conceived and oversees, arrives in L.A. on Friday for a 5 1/2 -month run at the California Science Center in Exposition Park. It is ballyhooed by its creator as "the biggest, baddest and boldest exhibition ever to tell the African American contribution to this country."
Smiley said the idea dawned on him early in 2007, after he had taken part in events surrounding the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown colony, the first British outpost in America -- and the arrival point for its first African slaves. It got him thinking about the sweep of American history, and how he'd never seen an exhibition that showed how African Americans were not just a part of that history, but at its core from the very beginning.
"I was burdened by this feeling I had: How could this story be told more comprehensively and compellingly?" he recalled over the phone from his L.A. home.
Having been impressed by the "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs" exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Smiley approached Arts and Exhibitions International, the company that handles logistics for the touring King Tut show, and got an enthusiastic response. Asking around about who would be most qualified to curate such a show, he kept hearing about John Fleming, vice president of museums at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Smiley says he talked Fleming out of that job and onto his team, which, by the summer of 2007, included an 11-member advisory board of scholars and cultural luminaries including Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Princeton's Cornel West and the actress-playwright Anna Deavere Smith.
As a guiding concept, Smiley says, they seized upon a question posed more than 100 years ago by the author and black activist W.E.B. Du Bois: "Would America have been America without her Negro people?"
"I told the team, 'This is the question I want this exhibition to answer.' "
Assembling the story
Smiley and partners also recruited big-name sponsors, including Wal-Mart and Microsoft. Rather than stepping back and taking a figurehead role, he says, he plunged into the nitty-gritty work of making calls to help secure loans of some of the nearly 300 artifacts that tell the story.
Among the highlights are the stool Martin Luther King Jr. sat on in the Birmingham, Ala., jail cell where he'd landed in 1963 for defying an anti-protest injunction. There he composed his "Letter From Birmingham Jail," a crucial document of the civil rights movement. The key to King's cell is on exhibit as well -- as is the fingerprint card that police in Montgomery, Ala., took from Rosa Parks upon booking her for refusing to give up her seat at the front of a city bus in 1955.
Smiley said he's seen young people gathered "four and five deep" in front of a display of notebooks that the doomed rapper, Tupac Shakur, filled with lyrics and poems, including one called "In the Event of My Demise."
Fun stuff abounds as well -- the robe Muhammad Ali wore while training for his landmark "Rumble in the Jungle" boxing match with George Foreman; the purple-and-gold, arrowheaded guitar Prince played in a knockout halftime performance at the 2007 Super Bowl; and a No. 42 jersey that Jackie Robinson wore during his last season with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
For Smiley, the most emotional artifact tells the very beginning of the saga: visitors file through the Door of No Return, the nearly 400-year-old wooden gateway from a stockade in Ghana, on the west coast of Africa, through which thousands of captives passed to be shackled in slave ships bound for the New World.
In Philadelphia, where "America I Am" premiered in January, a few days before a climactic moment in African American history -- the inauguration of President Obama -- and in Atlanta, its other stop before L.A., Smiley says he's seen the reaction: "People stand at those doors and just break down."
"There is an emotional pull that overcomes you when you stand in that door and are reminded what that doorway represents," he added, remembering when he stood between the same two pieces of wood 25 years ago, as a young man visiting Ghana with the poet Maya Angelou. "I communicate for a living, and have never found a way to verbalize what it feels like."
Smiley, 45, said there was one disappointment along the way: his inability to strike an alliance with, and obtain loans from, the Smithsonian Institution, which plans to build its own National Museum of African American History and Culture by 2015.