Director's Blog

Director's Blog

History is Not a Luxury: 10 Years of MTCC

Mosaic Templars Cultural Center - Wednesday, September 19, 2018

As we make the final touches for celebrating the museum’s ten year anniversary and the opening of the exhibition Respect: Celebrating 50 years of AfriCOBRA, I was reminded of a piece of writing by Audre Lorde titled “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.”

Lorde says, “Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

Lorde defines poetry in the broadest possible term as the “revelation or distillation of experience, not the sterile word play.” In reflecting on Lorde’s words, I wonder if she would feel a similar meaning about the vital necessity of museums and particularly of African American history and culture museums.

It is not an unusual happening in this museum to meet people who have never learned about black history or heard stories about the black experience. One of the earliest exhibits that I was a part of creating at MTCC was Farm in the City, an exhibition which explored the role that African Americans had in the rich agricultural history of Arkansas. In the process of creating that exhibit I learned about how African Americans in the Delta region had been the first to organize for the rights of sharecroppers in receiving better payment for their crops.

Or take for example the most recent exhibition, Don’t Touch My Crown, which highlighted the ways in which African American women have used their hair as both a means for economic advancement and as a way in which to have ownership over their own bodies. The stories that we partner with our community to share have a profound impact on those communities. Being able to give life to stories that historically were relegated to the basements of large museums or dismissed entirely creates a feeling that those stories matter and that by extension those people matter as well.

Being both a historian and a museum person, I am frequently struck by the historical similarities between black museums and black people. Take for example our beginnings whereby the Mosaic Templars of America building was slated for demolition to make way for a fast food chain. Instead of that being the end, community folks worked together and pushed to make it a state museum. While undergoing restoration work to create a museum, a catastrophic fire destroyed the historic structure.

Although it seemed that the decade-long struggle to save the building and have a museum of African American history in Arkansas was over, the Department of Arkansas Heritage decided to move forward with constructing a new building on the footprint of the previous one. In many ways, the challenges that this museum has faced in just existing have echoed the struggles of Africans Americans to overcome obstacles for decades. Arkansas native and Poet Laureate Maya Angelou expressed the sentiment well when she wrote the following:

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I'll rise….

So today, on the celebration of our 10 year anniversary as a museum, I want to sit with and soak in those words. I want to celebrate the myriad of ways in which we, like poetry, give name to the nameless and are a vital necessity of existence.

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