Music sensation Kendrick Lamar, legendary boxer Muhammad Ali and prolific writer James Baldwin are a few of the revolutionary Black men honored in a Smithsonian exhibit traveling through the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.
Part of the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service, “Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth.” debuted in 2019 at Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and shines a light on the impacts of Black men in their communities and the broader historical and cultural landscape of the U.S. in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Hosted in Tacoma through March 15, the exhibit challenges narratives around a perceived lack of Black male role models and encourages visitors to identify the change-makers in their own lives.
The exhibit gives museum-goers an opportunity to consider what they’ve been told versus what is real in history, politics, art, culture and activism, the Washington State Historical Society Director of Audience Engagement Mary Mikel Stump said. “[These men] challenge us to question what we’ve learned and what names the history books prefer.”
The exhibition includes more than 100 lightboxes, dozens of contemporary artworks, quotes, poetry and photographs housed within a freestanding architectural structure. The groundbreaking subjects of “Men of Change” were chosen by a committee of artists, academics, advisers and museum professionals and are organized by their realm of influence. The space is laid out to highlight six themes: storytellers, myth-breakers, fathers and father-figures, community advocates and organizers, catalysts, and men with imagination.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson is included in the exhibit’s storytellers section, for example. Wilson moved from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle in 1990, where he developed a relationship — and made his acting debut — with the Seattle Repertory Theatre. He created a prolific Black narrative and used African-American stories as metaphors to explore the human journey in his cycle of 10 generational plays. Before Wilson died in 2005, the theatre produced his entire cycle of plays and his one-man show. “Jitney,” the eighth play of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” debuted on Broadway in 2017 and will run at the Seattle Rep this year.
Basketball star LeBron James is highlighted as a community champion for his work to uplift and inspire people in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. He established the LeBron James Family Foundation to help kids and single-parent families and created programs to reverse high school dropout rates. In 2018, his foundation partnered with Akron Public Schools to open the I Promise School, which provides a STEM-focused education, trauma support and family services to at-risk students. James is also highlighted as a community changemaker for utilizing his platform to call attention to injustice, including the murder of Trayvon Martin and police killing of Eric Garner.
Stump is especially moved by Charles Bolden’s story. Between 1986 and 1994, the former astronaut piloted Space Shuttles Columbia and Discovery and served as mission commander aboard the Discovery and Atlantis. He became the first African American nasa administrator in 2009 and was the first human to have his voice broadcast on the surface of Mars.
“Their individual stories have power,” Stump said. “But the power in this exhibition is in the critical mass of their stories and in the inescapable truth and power of all these men gathered together.”
Original artworks correspond and further illuminate each man of change in the exhibition, and their forms, formats and mediums vary widely.
In his painting titled “Monumental,” Robert Pruitt responded to writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 essay “The Case for Reparations.” Published in The Atlantic, Coates’ essay draws a line from the 20th century practice of redlining — when banks and other lenders refused home loans and required higher interest rates and larger down payments from otherwise credit-worthy people because they lived in certain, mostly Black neighborhoods — to the economic status of African Americans today. Represented by Seattle art gallery Koplin Del Rio, Pruitt depicts a woman in red with a map covering her head and face. The map is shaped similarly to an antebellum bonnet, and the landscape shown is redlined. “I have attempted to emulate Coates’ spirit of clarity through my approach and references to ideas of home, property and architecture,” Pruitt said on the exhibit’s website.
Born in Detroit and based in New York City, artist Mario Moore created a hyper-realistic sculpture of billionaire businessman and philanthropist Robert F. Smith, incorporating silicone, resin, hair and other materials. Plexiglas encircles the sculpture, called “Seen,” to create an entry-point through a deliberate barrier and highlight how perception alters our view, Moore explained on the exhibition website. “Smith is a philanthropist and one of the America’s wealthiest men but has still faced issues based on his skin color,” he said.
At the museum recently, Stump recalled a visitor who asked why so many people know the names Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Warren Buffett and Elon Musk, but not Robert F. Smith. “Exactly — why is that?” Stump said. “It’s that moment of recognition.”
Before leaving the exhibition, visitors are encouraged to acknowledge the impactful men in their lives by participating in the museum’s grassroots letter-writing campaign. Drawing parallels between the exhibit and the changemakers in every community, writing thank you letters is meant to continue the conversation. “There are men of change in all of our lives,” Stump said. “I hope the action of writing a note prompts people to consider who those people are and how they can be that resource for someone else.”
With financial and program support from the Ford Motor Company Fund, the impact of the exhibition aims beyond the museum’s walls and into the future. Founded in 2015, Ford’s “Men of Courage” is a national initiative to build community by advancing the narrative of Black men through storytelling. Over its three-year stint on the road, cities that host “Men of Change” are eligible for funding to put toward community activation that explore the show’s themes. The Washington State Historical Society and Spaceworks — a Tacoma Chamber of Commerce program that supports local artists and business owners — plan to commission two murals this year celebrating men of change in Tacoma.
Spaceworks Artscapes Coordinator Gabriel Brown said the murals will be in the spirit of the exhibition and that design proposals, including deciding which local men to highlight, will be informed by the artists’ community engagement efforts. “It’s exciting to let the artists think creatively about the community engagement piece. We work with hyper-local artists and they know their communities very well,” he said.
Though the murals’ locations are still being confirmed, Stump said one is likely to be in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. “[Hilltop] is suffering greatly under gentrification, and I think it’s the perfect place to — through this community conversation — tease out and preserve these important changemakers in that community.”
In 2019, Ford expanded its Men of Courage program to include a barbershop challenge. Tacoma’s Goodfellas 253 and Legends barbershops were selected to compete, and the $10,000 top prize will be awarded in March. Both shops will get interior makeovers, Stump said, and the second-place winner will get $5,000 for a local nonprofit of their choosing.
“We’re putting this money into the community,” Stump said, “to leave residue of the exhibition long after it’s gone.”
Kelly Knickerbocker is a Seattle-based writer. Have a story idea? She can be reached at kellyknick13 (at) gmail (dot) com.
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