Inside D.C. entertainment

Tavis Smiley unveils 'America I Am: The African American Imprint' exhibit

February 1, 2011 - 03:15 PM
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Rosa Parks' arrest card (Photo: Mark Lyons/Courtesy of National Geographic)

This morning, Tavis Smiley unveiled the America I Am exhibit at the National Geographic Museum. The traveling exhibition opens to the public tomorrow and will remain at the museum through May.

The television/radio show host called it "the biggest, baddest, boldest exhibit ever to...tell of the contribution of black folk to this country," during remarks given before a ribbon-cutting ceremony and tour for members of the media and students from Anacostia's Neval Thomas Elementary School.

Smiley said the idea for the exhibition came to him after visiting Jamestown, Virginia, where, in 1619, the first Africans arrived in America, to be sold into slavery. "We know the story of the immigrants who came through Ellis Island, but we do not know the other story, the Jamestown story," Smiley said.

So Smiley, with much assistance from the Cincinati Museum Center, Walmart, and a bunch of other corporate and community partnerships and sponsorships, set out to recount 500 years of African-American history, and answer what he called the exhibit's "central, "DuBois-ian question: 'Would America have been America without her Negro people?'"

Smiley, leading a group of students through the exhibit

The collection of artifacts includes shackles used in the slave trade, Malcolm X's journal and Qur'an, the door key and stool from the jail cell that held Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he wrote Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and Prince's Purple Rain guitar, which Smiley procured himself.

"I called Prince one day—as in Prince," Smiley said, of asking his buddy to borrow his Purple Rain guitar. 'He said' What time you coming by to get it?' I got the guitar, took it back to the crib, and got in the mirror and took a couple photos."

Tickets can be purchased through National Geographic, and discounted tickets, Smiley noted, are available at area Walmart stores. 

The Purple Rain guitar
The bench from the jail cell Martin Luther King, Jr. was held in when he wrote Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Photo of an African-American Civil War soldier
The robe Muhammad Ali wore while training for the "Rumble in the Jungle"
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