When something big happens, we all rush to social media to read or contribute thoughts on the matter. The bigger the event, the more the comments and the louder the emotions. One would think that this kind of engagement would be more than enough—that we could exhaust all of our anger, joy, or sadness on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. But this appears not to be the case. We are still an animal that needs to engage directly with other bodies in places made out of actual stuff: bricks, concrete, marble, wood. Cyberspace has its limits. It does not have the bandwidth of reality.
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Cyberspace does have access to the social now, however—the cultural present—in a way that an event venue in ordinary space does not. All you need is to be online and you are a part of the discussion: no booking, no scheduling, no organizers. How can reality compete? How can it meet the physical communal needs of citizens in real time? By booking, scheduling, and organizing at a speed that does not miss the heat of the moment. This business of slow and considered preparation will just not do. When something's going on, people want to meet and talk right away. Sometimes, the longer it takes for you to get things together, the lower will be the number of those who attend the event. These are the hard facts of our times. Interestingly enough, one Seattle organization that's facing these hard facts is Northwest African American Museum, a museum whose primary focus is on history, particularly that of black Americans.
NAAM, which opened its doors in 2008, has made its reputation on big exhibits that explore local and national historical periods of the black experience. In 2012, for example, it had the marvelous James Baldwin in Turkey exhibit. Though not irrelevant, Baldwin has not been alive for more than 25 years, his peak as a writer was in the middle of the previous century, and those black-and-white photos in the exhibit were taken in 1965. Though the institution has this commitment to the past, to its preservation, of late it has been giving more and more attention and physical space to current trends and events. The museum in the old and bulky brick building is moving with the times—and not clumsily, but with speed and competency.
For example, as you undoubtedly know, on August 9, a young black male in Ferguson, Missouri, a working-class suburb of St. Louis, was shot to death by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. The unarmed young man was shot six times. Millions of Americans were outraged. There just seemed to be no justification to gun down an unarmed person. News and social-media sites immediately filled with images of the dead black man on the street, a police department that was clearly being armed by the Pentagon, and an unresponsive president. How could you be black or a liberal and not be pissed? An unarmed black youth is killed under circumstances that are not at all clear, and the police department responds to the ensuing unrest by withholding information and besieging the neighborhood like an occupying army.
Realizing that this was an important American moment, NAAM rapidly connected with PechaKucha Seattle, an organization that has its roots in the architectural community, and Seattle People of Color Salon, a network that has its roots in the arts community. Together they organized an event, #Ferguson, in a wing of the museum. This was just two weeks after the controversial death and a week after the protests it sparked were beginning to cool. The night was a huge success. The lecture room was packed with people, and the line of those waiting, hoping to get into the overcapacity room, ran all the way to a field nearby. There were 13 speakers (I was one of them), nearly all were black, and the audience was thoroughly mixed—Asian Americans, white Americans, black Africans, black Americans. The mood of the event was that of church. Many in the audience responded to the presentations—some by atheists, some by feminists, some by unrepentant punks—as if they were sermons. This was a secular church, a church of the here and now, a church for believers and nonbelievers.
The success of this night represented not only NAAM's swiftness but its growing relevance in the city's shifting cultural landscape. Despite being a black American museum in a neighborhood that's becoming less and less black and more and more white, it's proving to be very much alive and not, as it could easily have become, an emblem of a neighborhood that will be no more in a matter of years. In this way, its predominantly historical exhibits work as an active background to the present. The dead are not done here. Their struggles extend to the new and changing struggles of our day. What happened in Ferguson has a context at NAAM. This is why people came to the event, to this place, at this time. The effect and impact would not have been the same if it happened at the Henry or even the Frye. The potential for church at Seattle Art Museum is close to zero.
NAAM could easily have turned itself into a tombstone for a former black neighborhood. There is nothing really wrong with that. A tombstone is nothing to worry about. It's not controversial. Pitch Black, NAAM's current main exhibit that concerns black baseball history in Washington State, was after all sponsored by the Seattle Mariners, Boeing, KeyBank Foundation, Safeco Insurance Foundation, Verizon Wireless, and Wells Fargo. These corporations would never have touched #Ferguson with a pole that could reach the moon. Much of black history has lost its sting—after all, it's not unusual for a Republican to see Muhammad Ali as a national hero, or to say positive things about the March on Washington. But the present is risky and even explosive, and corporations do not like rocking boats; they much prefer a solid, silent, and stable tombstone.
Many of the speeches and slides that were presented at NAAM's #Ferguson event were charged by hot emotions. For example, Tyrone Brown, the artistic director of Brownbox Theater, said that Americans no longer believe in God but in the gun, and he ended his talk with the blasphemous declaration "Gun Bless America!" Lara Davis, arts education manager at the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, played raw punk tunes over clips of people at the recent Afropunk festival in Brooklyn, describing the United States as place of institutionalized violence and hate. Davida Ingram, a local artist and a 2014 nominee for a Stranger Genius Award, explored, among other things, the history and meaning of the expression "motherfucker" (white slave owners fucking black mothers). The people in the room needed this heat, this anger. They came here to share their shock and rage at the comments and images that filled the screens on phones and computers.
The black population in the Central District might be dwindling, but NAAM appears to be an institution with a future. And why? Why is it still dynamic and making connections with organizations that are also dynamic, like Seattle People of Color Salon and PechaKucha Seattle? One reason is that the staff is young. "It would be hard for me to get an immediate response from established black history types if I came into a meeting and said, 'Let's do an event on Afrofuturism!'" says Leilani Lewis, NAAM's thirtysomething marketing and communications manager. "It helps a lot if I get a 'yes' from my twentysomething colleagues." NAAM did end up collaborating with PechaKucha Seattle on an Afrofuturist event, and with Brooklyn's Afropunk on an Afropunk party. Both sold out. Both had, like #Ferguson, a very mixed audience in terms of race and age. Lewis admits that NAAM is also drawing ideas and inspiration from other local art institutions: "The Afropunk party idea was not original. It's like SAM's Remix. But if we see SAM can do it, and it works so well, we think we should also do it."
There are at present six twentysomethings at NAAM out of a staff of 12 (seven full-time and five part-time). "But I think our current situation also has a lot to do with how the museum has grown over the years. We have had three executive directors... The first, Carver Gayton, just got things started: raised the money, got the grants and the capital. The second, Barbara Earl Thomas, came in after the big bang and stabilized the institution. Now we have Rosanna Sharpe, who has the ground to stand on and can look into the future. Without all three, none of this would be possible."
"Definitely, our leadership has been crucial and is very aware of things," says Chieko Phillips, NAAM's 26-year-old exhibitions manager. "It's aware of its young staff. And what do we [the young staff] like to do? To party. We can say: 'Because we think it's fun, this is what should do, this is how we would want to explore this or that identity.' Being a history person, I'm sensitive to the past, but I'm also very aware of the world around me. And some of those interests are political and not always uncontroversial."
What's working for NAAM right now? Its willingness to be open to ideas from elsewhere, to collaborate with organizations that are directly or not directly connected with black culture; its strong ties with the black American community in Seattle and also the surrounding suburbs and cities (several of the people at #Ferguson came from Tacoma); and its increasing ability to respond rapidly to new developments in the cultural and political climate. We are not post-humans yet. We still need to meet and connect with the sheer energy of physical human presence, particularly during a social crisis that's filling our news feeds. And this was certainly what the speakers and audience at #Ferguson got from NAAM on that night—a space to be with others and, most importantly, to be creative with others. History is also in the making.