Before her formal reading and recitation, and even before the freewheeling lecture that preceded it, she started with a special incantation: she spoke aloud the names of at least 30, maybe 40, easily 50 African-American poets, novelists, playwrights, dancers, artists, activists, intellectuals, actors, singers, musicians, martyrs, playwrights, political leaders, freedom fighters and — for her — heroes of every stripe. After some names she would click her tongue once or twice or three times, or hoot or squeal to show her approval, admiration, adoration, veneration, gratitude, kinship, friendship, respect, even perhaps, in one or two cases, an appreciative fear in addition to the esteem in which she held each individual and the group as whole. The names became poetry. That’s how poweful they sounded.
Before I tell you too many of the workaday details about “Freedom’s Sisters,” the new, interactive multi-media exhibit that opened last weekend at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, I’d like to start Sonia Sanchez-style and draw your attention to the musicality of certain names before I tell you anything about the women to whom they belong: Ella J. Baker, Constance Baker Motley, Shirley Chisholm, Mary Church Terrell, Septima Poinsette Clark, Kathleen Cleaver, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Barbara Jordan, Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Sonia Sanchez, Coretta Scott King, Betty Shabazz, Harriet Tubman, C. Delores Tucker, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Ida B. Wells. To read them aloud is to sing of your history, no matter what race you are or what country you come from.
“Freedom’s Sisters” originated as a collaboration between the Cincinnati Museum Center, the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services (SITES) and the Ford Motor Company. The exhibition opened in Cincinnati in March 2008; the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) is the third stop in a tour that will eventually take “Freedom’s Sisters” to a total of eight cities, including Sacramento, Memphis, Detroit and Dallas. The show is organized around four themes – “Dare to Dream,” “Inspire Lives,” “Serve the Public” and “Look to the Future.” Almost every display is interactive — some require you to press a button to hear an audio clip; one includes a video game; one display won’t even activate unless three people work together. The Rosa Parks display includes a replica of a bus aisle, with three seats lined up in a row all facing a mirror. To activate the audio on the display, one person must sit on the seat and place his or her own fingertips over a photocopied image of Rosa Parks’ fingerprints, taken after her arrest in Montgomery for civil disobedience on Dec. 1, 1955. A second person must then sit down in the second seat and press his or her feat into the floor mat. A third person must sit down in the last seat in the row, where there are reproductions of fliers about the bus boycott. As each of these actions are done, an adjacent board lights up and you can hear Rosa Parks’ voice, uttering a simple sentence split into three parts:
I knew someone had to make the first move
and I made up my mind
not to move.
When the quote is complete, a light turns on behind the mirror, transforming it into a window. There sits a figure of Rosa Parks. In the reflection, she is sitting right beside you on the bus, gazing out of the window from the first seat at the front.
Doubtless, one point of the exhibition to present a fuller history not only of the Civil Rights movement but of the fashioning of the United States of America by acknowledging the indispenable role of women. Rosa Parks notwithstanding, most of the names and personalities that the average person associates with the movement are men. The women whose names we do know, in too many instances, we know because of the men to whom they were married or otherwise attached. “Freedom’s Sisters” pushes past tokenism by celebrating the women’s accomplishments through in-depth examination of their lives. (Somehow it seems worthwhile, if a little absurd, to quote James Brown here: “This is a man’s world, this is a man’s world/But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl.”) Each of the 20 women highlighted has a bi-fold or tri-fold panel that stands more than six feet tall and includes photographs, video projections and reproductions of historical documents and artifacts. This kind of interactivity makes passivity nearly impossible, and the visitor has the odd experience of actually getting to know these women.
I learned in grade school about what Harriet Tubman did for the Underground Railroad, but I never knew that she worked as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War. The display about her included an actress reading Tubman’s account of the Combahee River Raid, during which she helped free 800 slaves as Union soldiers burned down dozens of South Carolina plantations. History books have got nothing on hearing a human voice give an account like that. (Plus, there’s the video game in which you are navigating Union gunboats down a narrow river. Never have I had so much riding on a win: If you hit a torpedo or run the boat aground, the game-over message is “You failed to safely navigate the river & help the slaves.”) I have heard “We Shall Overcome” a hundred times or more, in person and in documentaries, but I never knew how much it mattered when Zilphia Horton first sung it at the Highlander Folk School. For that matter, I didn’t know much about the Highlander Folk School, or how the literacy programs there were the model for the “Citizenship Schools” that Septima Poinsette Clark started all over the Deep South, working for the end of disenfranchisement among black Americans. I knew Barbara Jordan’s name and that she was the first African-American congresswoman from the South, but I’d never heard for myself the power of her speech during the Watergate hearings, when as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, she said: “... Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, ‘We, the people.’ It is a very eloquent beginning. But when the document was completed on the seventeenth of September 1787 I was not included in that “We, the people.” I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation and court decision I have finally been included in “We, the people.” Today, I am an inquisitor; I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” I heard those words by pushing a button under an antiquated microphone set up as a museum artifact. History can pack a wallop sometimes, depending on how its lessons are delivered.
The final feature of “Freedom’s Sisters” is a build-a-book carousel, stocked with 20 handbills, each one is a miniature replica of the display dedicated to each individual woman. Using one of the folders provided on top of the carousel you can take home all 20 bios or simply select the ones you find most interesting. Next to the carousel is a photobooth. Visitors are encouraged to enter it one at a time, close the curtain to the tiny studio and have his or her picture made. The portrait that emerges is not the old-fashioned black-and-white photobooth strip or one of the newfangled sticker sets that come from movie theater photobooths. Instead, it’s a handbill, identical in format to the ones that feature the women celebrated in the exhibition, but with your picture in the position of honor. In this way, you take your place among “Freedom’s Sisters.” Where they are, you are there, too.
“Freedom’s Sisters” will be on display in the Odessa Woolfolk Gallery at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute through Oct. 4, 2009, and then will travel on a three-year national tour to five additional cities. Admission to the exhibition is included in regular BCRI admission prices: adults $11; students and seniors $5; children grades 4-12 living outside Jefferson County; children grades 4-12 living in Jefferson County, free. BCRI is open Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 1-5 p.m.
For more information, call (205) 328-9696 or visit www.bcri.org.