One culture’s imprint

Published on December 17, 2012 by in Charlotte

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By Bonita Buford, Gantt Center

Mournful voices chant; chains scrape across a floor; sobs and sporadic drums form the soundtrack as visitors step into America I AM: The African American Imprint, a sweeping historical exhibition outlining pivotal moments of courage, conviction and creativity.   This multimedia presentation includes rare documents, photographs and more than two hundred original artifacts gathered in one place to demonstrate the economic, socio-political, cultural and spiritual impact African Americans have had on the United States and the world.

Mounted on either side of a passageway that leads to a cold, dimly lit replica of a dungeon are the Doors of No Return, two wooden slabs that were salvaged when Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle – one of many structures where slaves were held for transport — was demolished.  Chains and shackles encased in the gallery reveal how slaves were restrained before being loaded onto ships headed for the New World.

AIA Teacher Viewing Document

Gantt Center visitors in Civil Rights Gallery

Gantt Center visitors in Civil Rights Gallery

Life varied for Africans in America.  Earthen vessels crafted by a South Carolina slave, known today as Dave the Potter, were utilitarian but were inscribed with original poems and Dave’s signature.  Because it was illegal for slaves to read and write, signing his work was a bold act, punishable by death.  Thomas Day, a free black man who owned slaves, left behind an incredible legacy in furniture, cabinetry, and other woodwork.   Day’s marble-topped mahogany wash stand is displayed next to a Southern lady’s four-piece dresser set.  The collection includes the requisite comb, brush and mirror and, unexpectedly, a silver-handled whip reminding viewers that reprimanding household servants was the order of the day.

Galleries filled with objects representing the abolishment of slavery, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era lead to one introducing the Civil Rights Movement.  A replica of a jail cell commands the space.  Visitors hear a door closing and peer into the cell.  A 1963 photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in silhouette covers the rear wall; the small rusted iron bench in the center is where he sat for nine days in solitary confinement in Birmingham, Alabama.  King’s voice rings out with excerpts from his landmark Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

James Brown sings his 1964 hit “I Feel Good” when guests turn the corner into the final gallery.  Vinyl 45s share exhibition space with Muhammad Ali’s boxing robe and the tennis outfit Serena Williams wore when she was crowned 2009 Wimbledon Tennis Champion.  The final display case houses Stevie Wonder’s harmonica and the artist-again-known-as Prince’s 2007 Super Bowl half-time show guitar.

With so many rare and unique artifacts, visitors to the Gantt Center leave the exhibition having spied at least one object of significance to them and a deeper appreciation of the African American imprint on the globe.

Gantt Center visitor views 1801 NYC Census

Gantt Center visitor views 1801 NYC Census

3 Responses to “One culture’s imprint”

  1. george singfield says:

    Beautifully presented and quite infirmative. I wish I were able to be there.

    George, L.I. N.Y.

  2. Larkin Kinsella says:

    I toured the Gantt Center in October 2012 while in Charlotte for a wedding. I was most touched by two displays. One was the iron restraints that were fitted around the hands and feet of slave men and women. I can only imagine the terrible sores that would result after just a few days of the iron weight on their ankles or feet.

    The other was seeing the silver-handled whip on the woman’s dressing table. The silver handle with its matching white suede leather strap made a complete mockery of beauty, feminity and culture — with it lying there on the dressing table. It literally took my breath away when I read what it was for. It was another of the endless run of horrors American men and women slaves endured.
    I pity the cruel masters, the slave drivers,the slave hunters and othes who profitted from slavery — when they stand before God and ask for mercy? I know I’m just a human but I question if God’s mercy can really reach out that far to touch their inhuman actions.
    I mostly pray though for the slave men and women and children who may have despaired in God’s love while they were being treated so cruelly hour after hour, time after time. As Christians, we are taught not to despair — but what could sustain them against such ignominy? Still I must say, may God have mercy on all those involved in this despicable institution. .

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