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'America I Am: The African American Imprint' coming to L.A.

Talk show host Tavis Smiley conceived the idea for the sweeping survey of the black American experience, which will be mounted at the California Science Center in Exposition Park.

September 24, 2009|Mike Boehm

Conceived by Tavis Smiley, a sweeping historical and cultural survey of the black American experience called "America I Am: The African American Imprint" will arrive in L.A. on Oct. 30 for a 5 1/2 -month run at the California Science Center in Exposition Park, it was announced Wednesday.

Smiley, who hosts talk shows on public radio and television, said the idea took hold early in 2007 after he took part in events surrounding the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown colony, the first permanent British outpost in America -- and the arrival point for its first African slaves. It got him thinking about the sweep of U.S. history, and how he'd never seen an exhibition that showed how African Americans were not only a part of it, but at its core from the start.

Smiley enlisted Arts and Exhibitions International, the company that produced the King Tut ancient Egyptian blockbuster that had impressed him when he saw it at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and recruited a team of curatorial experts. The guiding concept, he says, is to answer a question black activist W.E.B. Du Bois posed more than 100 years ago: "Would America have been America without her Negro people?"

The exhibition numbers nearly 300 artifacts, including a re-creation, with actual furnishings, of the cell where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his 1963 "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," and the fingerprints that police in another Alabama city, Montgomery, took from Rosa Parks upon booking her for refusing to give up her bus seat in 1955.

Also featured are a robe worn by Muhammad Ali, a guitar Prince played at the 2007 Super Bowl and Jackie Robinson's baseball jersey.

For Smiley, the most emotional artifact is the Door of No Return, the nearly 400-year-old wooden gateway from a stockade in Ghana, through which captives were herded at the outset of their forced passage as slaves to the New World.

The four-year, 10-city tour began in Philadelphia on Jan. 15. Admission is $9.50, with discounts for children, students and seniors; Science Center officials are estimating that at least 300,000 people will see "America I Am."

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mike.boehm@latimes.com

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