With the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History celebrating its 50th anniversary in March, there's no better way to salute one of Detroit's premier cultural institutions than by reacquainting yourself with its powerful core exhibit, "And Still We Rise."
This 22,000-square-foot exhibition takes you from — Whew! — the dawn of humanity to President Obama's election. As you would expect, it's hugely informative, astonishing in its narrative sweep, and often deeply moving.
What gets less press, however, is the fact that the exhibit is also — never mind the grim topic at the heart of it — fun, particularly if you've got little kids in tow, who will love some of the historical re-creations. And Wright President and CEO Juanita Moore is okay with that.
"You're supposed to enjoy it," she says, "and walk out of there with a better understanding of the strength, grit and resilience of a whole people."
(To be precise, the museum is 50 years old. Its present building, however, opened in 1997.)
Created in 2004 by Ohio's Display Dynamics, who also worked on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., "And Still We Rise" takes the visitor through a winding route involving some 20 galleries.
Of these, the punchiest feature life-sized re-creations along the historical path that brought Africans to the New World, and once here, delivered them from slavery to the long struggle for equal rights in the 20th century.
"And Still We Rise" starts with a bang with a mock-up of the archaeological dig that discovered Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old hominid thought to have been a key bridge between apes and humans, her bones sunk in vertical "rock face" in much the way they were discovered in Ethiopia in 1974.
Just beyond — also, amusingly, embedded in "rock" — is a video that does a nice job laying out the connection between all of mankind and the nameless young woman in East Africa some 150,000 years ago, thought to be our species' "genetic Eve."
Panels detailing the nature of ancient African economies and the astonishing reach of the slave trade — Who knew some ended up in Japan? — are concise, clear, and more engaging than you'd think. And at the other end, galleries devoted to slave life, emancipation and the long road to the Civil Rights movement are likewise packed with intriguing facts.
Who knew, for example, that the young Henry Ford had a black friend, and that because of that Ford Motor Co. was the first of the Big Three to hire African-Americans, starting in 1914? Equally surprising, for the most part the company treated black and white employees the same.
But the liveliest bits in this exhibit are those that replicate what unfortunate Africans fell into once captured, as they were processed through the slavery supply chain.
We pass from dark dungeons where the newly caught were imprisoned through a door into blinding "sunshine" pouring down onto the deck of a vast square-rigged sailing ship in mid-ocean. We hear gulls, the slap of the waves and the screams of the poor man kneeling in the corner who's being branded like an ordinary cow by two white sailors.
Much worse, however, awaits below deck. Go down the stairs and find yourself in the great ship's hold, where slaves are shoehorned into stacked sleeping platforms like sardines. Dozens of mannequins lie in long rows, cheek by jowl, forced to lie on their right sides to maximize space.
Don't be surprised if this cruel tableau calls to mind the famous black-and-white pictures of the near-dead in the Auschwitz barracks. The misery here is equally appalling, stamped on the faces of the dozens upon dozens that make up this impressively grim gallery.
(In an astonishing detail, we're told that because of fearful overcrowding and nonexistent sanitation, you could smell a slave ship miles away.)
Once in America, "And Still We Rise" takes us to a slave market in Annapolis, Maryland, and then through rooms depicting the life of ordinary slaves.
Hope makes a belated appearance with the rise of the Abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. Watch for startled reactions when visitors enter the room where a grim-faced Harriet Tubman, without warning, turns and says "I'll shoot you dead if you don't do what I say." (Her comments were directed at the slaves she was helping to escape.)
From the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation on, we enter more-familiar territory leading toward the 20th century and the black community's long struggle for equal rights.
The key landmarks along that path — Jim Crow, racist Supreme Court decisions, and the growth of the Civil Rights movement — all get their due, ultimately leaving the visitor with a sense of how far the country has come. One walks out of the museum encouraged, not beaten down, and that's as it should be.
For Moore, the lesson the exhibit leaves with children is critical. "It's important that they get a sense that difficulties in life can be overcome," she says — a lesson equally timely and valuable for the rest of us.
'And Still We Rise'
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
315 E. Warren, Detroit
9 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday, 1 p.m. - 5 p.m. Sunday
Tickets $8 adults, $5 seniors (62+), $5 kids (3-12); members free
Celebrate 50 years of Wright
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and Ford Motor Co. will present "Oh Freedom! A Musical Journey through African American History" with Grammy-winner Patti Austin Sunday evening at the Detroit Opera House.
It should be a rocking Detroit party. With Austin on stage will be a choir comprised of 75 of the metro area's best voices, local blues great Thornetta Davis, and jazz and gospel vocalist Joan Belgrave.
'Oh Freedom! A Musical Journey through African American History'
7 p.m. Sunday
Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit
Tickets: $25 - $200
Call (800) 745-3000 or visit ticketmaster.com.